A long history
From complex fish weirs and buffalo jumps to the gathering and cultivation of thousands of species of plants for food and medicine, Indigenous peoples across the Prairies have long practiced sophisticated agriculture. Archaeological evidence—and traditional knowledge—tells us that Indigenous people were growing a range of plants uniquely suited to the environment thousands of years ago. And more importantly, Indigenous communities worked with technologies and food cultures that we are still learning from today.
When European settlers arrived in the Prairies, many assumed that the Indigenous peoples they encountered were nomadic, and knew little about agriculture. What settlers failed—or refused—to understand was that Indigenous patterns of movement and seasonal migration were themselves part of a complex technology of food harvesting that took advantage of variations in climate and resources.
Colonial settlement in Saskatchewan and the Prairie West meant that Indigenous peoples were not only unable to practice traditional farming, they were also prevented from participating in the settler farming economy. Either through the establishment of reserves, or through restrictive permit systems and pass laws, Indigenous peoples faced a complex system of regulations designed to extinguish their traditional food practices, and ensure that Treaty Nations could not compete with settler farmers.
So where are Indigenous people today when it comes to agriculture in Saskatchewan? For many decades, some Indigenous groups simply leased out land to farmers and agribusiness, leaving the nuts and bolts of farming to others. But that is changing, and rapidly. Groups like the Thunderchild First Nation are expanding their involvement with agriculture, with a focus on training young people. Meanwhile, new investments from governments at all levels are flowing into Indigenous agricultural initiatives. Whether it’s about addressing issues of food security, honouring ancient food traditions, or making sure that Indigenous citizens are in the driver’s seat when it comes to economic development, more and more acres of Saskatchewan are being farmed by dedicated and entrepreneurial Indigenous peoples.
What is helping to drive all of this activity? Over the last two decades, Saskatchewan’s indigenous population has grown tremendously, with rates far surpassing those for non-Indigenous residents of the province. And significantly, Saskatchewan’s Indigenous population is young, with data from the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey showing that over half were under the age of 25, compared to only 30% in this age group for the rest of the province. All of this means that, according to Statistics Canada, 1 in 5 residents of Saskatchewan will be Aboriginal by 2036.
Clearly, Indigenous demographics will have a big impact on agriculture in Saskatchewan, because at the same time, the province’s farming community—and conventional agricultural industry—is also changing. A recent study of Canadian farmers found that the sector is at an intersection of both technological and demographic transformation. By 2025, one in four Canadian farmers will be 65 or older, with many retiring in the coming decade. This generation of farmers and farming practices is being replaced by new people and businesses who are adopting technology like never before. Called by some the fourth wave of agriculture, it is an approach characterized by the use of sophisticated digital and automated processes that includes the use of drones, artificial intelligence, and even robotics to boost productivity. Perhaps even more importantly, digital agriculture holds out the promise of growing food more sustainably.
The opportunity is here
Taken together, these factors add up to a tremendous opportunity for First Nations across Saskatchewan. Indigenous leaders have long expressed concern over the negative environmental impacts of conventional agriculture, while at the same time pointing to racial biases that continue to exclude Indigenous workers from full participation in farming and food production. The reality is that digital agriculture cannot afford to exclude anyone from the workforce, because right now, there is a critical shortage of skilled workers ready to implement the technology that is driving agricultural innovation.
In a recent interview, Senior Indigenous Adviser to Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture Katie Wood spoke about the how crucial it is for Indigenous young people to get involved in the agricultural sector:
“In agriculture, anything around soil, water and air quality protection is so important to our people. We protect Mother Earth. We can contribute to developing a strong and sustainable agricultural sector on and off reserve. We need more Indigenous people, young people, to come in and create and fill those sustainable agriculture opportunities.”
To help address this need, Palette Skills has teamed up with the University of Saskatchewan and leading agtech organizations Protein Industries Canada and the Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative (EMILI) to launch a new training program for workers in digital agriculture. The Digital Agriculture Specialist Program has already graduated a cohort of workers ready to lead the implementation of sophisticated and sustainable solutions for agriculture across Saskatchewan.
Indigenous communities stand to benefit from the coming digital agricultural revolution because these communities have everything in place to lead this same revolution. With more and more young and skilled citizens ready to embrace technology and entrepreneurship, the task will be to make sure that leaders in agriculture understand the need to work closely with Indigenous communities and concerns. The opportunities are enormous, not only for Saskatchewan’s many First Nations, but also, for the province as a whole.