Farm owner finds equitable uses for stolen land

In the midst of the pandemic, during the darkest days of isolation, Andrea Wheeler found community. From her family farm in southern Ontario, the Community Capacity Building program participant has spent the past year reflecting on what legacy and land ownership means on stolen land and growing a crop of ambitious community projects focused on reconciliation, anti-racism, healing, sharing resources, and connecting people to themselves and the land.

When the pandemic struck, Andrea was living on the unceded west coast, thousands of miles from the farmland she had inherited after her father’s passing five years ago. Located on the unceded territory of the Kanyen’keh:ka (Mohawk), Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples, the land was originally leased to the British government by the Kanyen’keh:ka. When the British Empire left the land, the colonies stopped paying rent to the Kanyen’keh:ka.

“My generational land wealth came from stolen land,” she acknowledges. When she lost both her job and her home last year, Andrea laughs that the universe was giving her a sign. She decided it was time to move to the farm—but on her own terms. She realized she could use her privilege as a landowner to address social issues close to her heart.

Under the umbrella term of “reparations collective,” Andrea has initiated several projects on her farm in collaboration with her new community, including a street help group she started with Tina Point, a member of the Wolf Clan of the Kanyen’keh:ka (Mohawk Nation). “We’re collaborating to make the farm a place for the people that we support to come be with the land, a place where we can share knowledge and bring healing,” she explains.

Andrea is also collaborating with the Wolf and Bear Clan to grow food, as the land on their reserve is too polluted to support growing. Beyond the Indigenous community, Andrea has provided land to a local group that supports new immigrants, acknowledging the farming wisdom that newcomers bring with them and the importance of accessing traditional foods.

In addition, Andrea has launched an artist/activist residency, inviting primarily Black, brown and queer artists, and is working with the Mohawk community to develop materials for settler artists to reflect upon before arriving on the land. Andrea also has plans to offer educational programs that revisit local history from perspectives other than those of white settlers, as well as community gatherings focused on sharing food as an entry point to deeper conversations.

While Andrea says she’s grateful for the welcome she’s received from her new community for all her efforts, she has missed the support of her west coast friends and teachers as she engaged in difficult conversations with family and locals. But it comforted her to know she could always count on the support of her Community Capacity Building instructors and cohort.

“A lot of this work has been done in isolation,” she says. “So, it felt so supportive having the community to meet with every week. It’s nice to know there are other people doing similar work.”

Andrea credits her wide range of personal interests and eclectic career path for giving her the diverse knowledge she’s needed to build the collective. “A lot of the things I’m applying now, I was doing as personal projects before,” she explains. “I feel grateful to have a space to practise and share what I have learned from Black and indigenous activists and teachers from the frontlines.”

Even with her extensive experience in community work, Andrea still found much to learn from her instructors and fellow learners in the Community Capacity Building program, including ideas for ensuring her projects remain financially and spiritually sustainable. Most of all, she says, she valued the thoughtful, caring approach encouraged by the program, and its focus on moving with intention, vulnerability, creativity and bravery.

“The instructors showed us how to be in community, how to care for people in the midst of doing everything that you’re doing,” she says. “And just to keep a humble, compassionate, creative and intentional approach to everything you do. It’s been such a confirming program.”

By Kim Mah