A new way to think about the land

UAlberta honourary degree holder Nettie Wiebe urges a reimagining of our relationship with the land.

Tia Lalani - 22 June 2018

Nettie Wiebe speaking at the University of Alberta Augustana Campus' convocation ceremony on June 3, a day before her public lecture on Land Values and Living Values. Photo credit: Emil Yim.

We need to think radically about who owns the land-and why-as a means of collectively changing the way we think about food and how we live in our ecological systems, feminist and farmer Nettie Wiebe expressed in a public lecture in early June at the University of Alberta's Augustana Campus.

Wiebe began by complicating the idea of land ownership and questioning the history of how land has been acquired in the prairies, as well as how farmers' relationships to land have changed over time.

"This land was given because it had been taken," Nettie remarked, of buying and selling farms that had been originally acquired through colonization. Instead of relegating the land to notions of ownership and economic viability, she stressed the importance of relying on the wisdom and care of people of the land, including small-scale farmers, Indigenous peoples and peasants-a term she uses to describe herself, reclaiming it from its negative feudal connotations-to reconnect and create a sustainable future.

Another disconnect that has become more pronounced over time is the fact that the people who now own the land do not necessarily need to be there to care for it, especially in terms of large-scale farming.

"If you're really going to care for the land, you need to know that something depends on it," Wiebe said, referencing a family farming ethos that has waned over time. "There is no better incentive for taking care of land than knowing the fate of your children and your grandchildren depend on it."

Nettie Wiebe knows this incentive well, as a farmer who still tills the field of her family's organic farm in Saskatchewan. Alongside her farming duties, she is an outspoken feminist, activist and champion of global food security, having been the former (and first female) president and CEO of the National Farmers Union of Canada and worked for La Via Campesina, a global organization that fosters unity and sustainable practices among small farmer organizations. It is her relationship with the land both personally and professionally that makes her such an advocate for it.

And it is this sense of love for the land instead of ownership that she hopes to inspire in others. "Our long-term well being as a society depends on taking care of the land," Wiebe said, challenging the way people think about land as a commodity. "We need to value the land as a living system of which we are a part-and, I sometimes remind audiences-to which we will return so that we can think about the land in an ultimately different way."

Her lecture followed the conferral of an honourary degree in laws from the University of Alberta at Augustana's convocation ceremony on June 3. The lecture-brought to Augustana by the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life and the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities-allowed the audience a chance to delve deeper into Wiebe's passion and life's work, which she touched on in her convocation speech. And which she encouraged the graduates to keep in mind as well.

"I urge you to embrace your unique gifts and use them to enhance and enrich the larger social and ecological context in which you live, work, continue to learn, love and eat."

To view Nettie Wiebe's lecture, click here.