In late 2014 I began to conceptualize a new restaurant. I had just made a tentative deal to take over a space in Guelph’s Bookshelf menagerie of cinema, bookstore, café and night club…and I thought it would be rather cool to operate a full service restaurant within that particularly dynamic orbit. While my company, The Neighbourhood Group, specialized in locally-inspired eating and drinking places already, it struck me that we were not specifically celebrating our history in this place we call Canada in a very explicit way. Our pub, The Woolwich Arrow, featured great micro-crafted beers and above average pub fare (in other words, a "gastropub”), it was all about what is happening now. Whereas our Borealis Grilles were casual fine dining restaurants with a mandate to have radically local menus that would help define where "Canadian” cuisine (whatever the hell that means), is going. So, it was appropriate, to me, that we should look back to see where our foods came from, an exploration of our roots.
After conceiving the overall concept all that was required was a name… and what could be better than one that came from our First Nations.After some research and consultation with an indigenous friend, the Ojibwa word "Miijidaa” was chosen. Literally it means "Let’s Eat”. What appealed to me most was the feeling that it seemed like an invitation… a call to the dinner table. It was a perfect name for a restaurant.
Of course, one worry that came with the name was that certain people might take exception to a non-native person appropriating First Nation culture. At first I consulted Tom King who thought that it should not be a problem… buthe also observed that there is always someone who finds fault with some things. So plans went ahead. My son Court coordinated the design and build-out. Chef and Managing Partner Shea Robinson created a terrific menu fusing many of the cuisines that came to this land – First Nations, French, English with nods to Norsemen and Portuguese. We opened in late August 2015 with Fountain Santos as Managing Partner/General Manager heading up the team and partnering with Shea. We had a very good start in the new business.
In early September I received a call from Shannon Holmes who invited me to visit her Indigenous Learning Circle Gueph. "A few folks have some questions about your new restaurant”, she told me. I went to their meeting place on a Wednesday night. I was a little apprehensive as I joined in a smudging ceremony – a kind of spiritual cleansing using smoke (in this case from burning dried sage). I was intrigued, and thoroughly enjoyed the Learning Circle’s participants. Soon the question of cultural appropriation came up, as I had expected. My explanation was that the overall restaurant concept was an actual celebration of not only indigenous foods but all major cuisines that were brought to our shores. Rather than simply ‘taking from’ we were ‘recognizing and honouring’ contributions by all people, regardless of our messy histories. Whether it was the smudging or the tangible kindness emanating from the group, I left the Circle with a strange sense of peace and a feeling of appreciation of First Nation perspective(s).
Shannon and I went on to meet a few more times. At one meeting she asked me if I’d consider putting up a plaque recognizing that the restaurant was situated on the ancestral lands of First Nations. It sounded interesting! Fortunately one of our service team members, Christina Kingsbury, had some experience with Land Acknowledgement events. After getting more in-depth information we convened various meetings that included First Nations elder Jan Sherman, Christina, my son Court and Shannon…before I knew it we had a plan!
On October 28th a group of mostly invited people gathered at Miijidaa Café + Bistro. There were folks from the Indigenous Learning Circle, friends of Jan Sherman, my friends and family, strangers and the Minett family (our landlords). We all went outside on the patio and participated in a smudging. Introductions were the next order of business. Then we went inside and Jan led us through the steps to finalizing our recognition of the original stewards of the land upon which the restaurant now stood. We listened to a beautiful prayer from Sherman Maness, we feasted, we sang, some drummed, we hugged and, finally, we went home. It felt good. It felt right.
Note: The bronze plaque is now mounted on the exterior of the restaurant building. Everyday I notice people reading it. Very cool.
by Bob Desautels