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Toward relational accountability in land and food research

Toward relational accountability in land and food research

Sarah Rotz

As a settler scholar-activist, Professor Sarah Rotz’s work focuses on political ecologies of land and food systems, settler colonial patriarchy, and concepts of sovereignty and justice related to food, water and energy, and the ecosystems that support them. Having lived in Guelph and Toronto, Rotz has worked with various organizations and campaigns from fossil fuel divestment, food and climate justice and food sovereignty. She has written on topics ranging from the politics of farmland ownership and critical perspectives of agricultural technologies to the ways that settler colonial and patriarchal mentalities uphold extractive practices and relationships on the land.  

Rotz is currently working in collaboration with Indigenous and settler academics, food provisioners and community- based activists, including Adrianne Lickers Xavier, Ayla Fenton, Danielle Boissoneau, Terran Giacomini and Lauren Kepkiewicz on a project titled, Relational Accountability for Indigenous Rematriation (RAIR): Creating food sovereignty through rematriation, land sharing, and relationship building (RAIR Collective) 

The RAIR collective centres relationality with the land and each other. The collective aims to contribute to grassroots rematriation and (re)connection to land. They support the convergence of food sovereign peoples in ways that advance dialogue and action for Indigenous land rematriation. This work centres Indigenous women and two-spirit presence, experiences and relationships to land and traditional territories, while also seeking to bring interested food growers and gatherers into a dialogue.

The collective acknowledges the long history of knowledge, epistemology and activism around land rematriation, resurgence, and reconnection. The term rematriation has been described by Steven Newcomb, co-founder and co-director of US-based Indigenous Law Institute, as actions “to restore a living culture to its rightful place on Mother Earth,” or conditions where lands, waters and our relationships to them are intentionally returned to their natural or spiritual context. Bernedette Muthien, poet, scholar and activist who co-founded and directs an NGO, Engender, based in South Africa has described rematriation as “reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources, instead of the more patriarchally associated repatriation.” Simply put, it means back to Earth. 

migrant workers.jpg
Photo credit: Laura Elizabeth Pohl

The RAIR collective is exploring and drawing on the concept of rematriation as a way to move toward healthier and more reciprocal relationality to land. Rematriation as a concept and process may help us restructure how we relate to the land, one another, and ourselves. As RAIR understands it, rematriation encompasses the collection of thoughts, feelings and behaviours (both internal and interpersonal) that intentionally allow us to (re)connect, (re)interpret and (re)learn in ways that prioritize and restore an embodied and spiritual relationship to land.  

The RAIR collective is developing resources for those interested in relating to the land and one another as food sovereign peoples in ways that centre Indigenous knowledges and experiences. It aims to support dialogue and action to reconnect ourselves with lands in anti-(and other-than)colonial ways. To achieve this, the project has delegated their social and economic resources directly to Indigenous people and communities. The project is navigating ways to build relationships for food sovereignty that centre Indigenous land and food systems while bringing together both Indigenous and settler peoples in dialogue about land rematriation. These dialogues have been put in place to improve understanding of and mobilize action around new ways to be in relation with land. This is not only limited to the legal “owners” of land but also those involved in the land in different ways such as those that are renters, hunters, gatherers, among others. 

Through this work, RAIR aims to better understand what anti-colonial relationality might look like between one another and the land. Their work and research together evolves from their different positionalities, places and experiences as researchers, organizers and people. The collective recognizes their uneven and differentiated experiences of injustice and oppression, which guides their work towards a broader movement for food sovereignty as well as build intentional and accountable relationships.  

The project is embarking on outreach, writing and knowledge creation practices that would extend beyond academic forums. These include prioritising community- based knowledge dissemination along with publishing popular resources as well as audio- visual mediums such as podcasts and videos. The team is exploring the methodology of “encounters” as a way of building authentic relationships based on shared struggle and in-depth dialogue toward greater mutual understanding. This method entails the participant’s own experiences and views of the world. It allows them to decide what they want to discuss and prioritize, as well as shape the research according to their interests.

Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet: Mosby, Ian,  Rotz, Sarah, Fraser, Evan D.G.: 9780889777200: Books - Amazon.ca

Rotz has also been working in collaboration with a large program of research titled, ‘A Shared Future’ and recently co-authored an article on Non-Indigenous partner perspectives on Indigenous peoples' involvement in renewable energy: Exploring reconciliation as relationships of accountability or status quo innocence? The paper provides an initial look at the way non-Indigenous actors working in renewable energy understand and relate to topics of settler colonialism, reconciliation, Indigenous rights and self-determination. Findings reveal the significant lack of understanding of Indigenous histories, cultures and acknowledgement of settler colonialism on the part of settler participants, which has a profound impact on their engagement with reconciliation frameworks. The paper highlights the significant barriers to reconciliation happening at the organizational and institutional level. It also notes that attempts to simply increase ‘community capacity’ for Indigenous groups to ‘participate’ in such projects is wrong-headed and entirely insufficient in addressing the deep roots of settler colonialism. 

Sarah Rotz is Assistant Professor at EUC and is the recipient of the Dean’s Research Award in 2021. She is a co-author with Ian Mosby and Evan Fraser in the book Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet (University of Regina Press, 2020) which is shortlisted for the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) 2020 Book Awards. She has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography at Queens University as part of the CIHR funded ‘A SHARED Future’ project. She holds a PhD in Geography at the University of Guelph and a Master’s in Environmental Studies at York University and a Bachelor’s in Environmental Management at the University of Toronto.  

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