Why P.E.I. chef Michael Smith is offering a culinary scholarship for Indigenous students

Renowned Prince Edward Island chef Michael Smith is taking a personal step towards reconciliation by offering a culinary scholarship to prospective Indigenous students on the Island. 

Smith says offering 6-year, $75,000 scholarship is his step towards reconciliation

Non-Indigenous chefs are 'not the first cooks to walk this land,' says chef Michael Smith. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Renowned Prince Edward Island chef Michael Smith is taking a personal step toward reconciliation by offering a culinary scholarship to prospective Indigenous students on the Island.

Smith and his wife, Chastity Smith, are offering $75,000 over the next six years to the Holland College Foundation for Indigenous applicants who would like to study at the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown.

Students who earn the award will have their full tuition paid, as well as an internship at the couple's Inn at Bay Fortune near Souris, P.E.I. 

"The idea for this award has been brewing over for several years," Smith told CBC News.

"I think taking the time to mark Reconciliation Day last year really got us thinking hard about what we could do within our business to better connect with the Indigenous community."

The onus of finding ways toward reconciliation is on non-Indigenous people, not Indigenous communities, he said.

"What slowed us down is realizing that it is simply not the job of the Indigenous community to come into our community and show us how to fix this," said Smith, adding it's important to honour relationships with Indigenous communities.

Chef Michael Smith and his wife are pledging funding for six years to help Indigenous students enrol at Holland College's Culinary Institute of Canada. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"Every one of us personally, and as businesses, need to figure out how to do this best."

Non-Indigenous chefs are "not the first cooks to walk this land," he said. "I think it's essential that we as a group of cooks, go to the elders of our First Nations community on an annual basis and ask permission to fish, farm, forage, and cook on this land." 

Finding a system of support

Smith said he has had conversations with First Nation communities on P.E.I. about the scholarship. Last year, he spoke with Charlie Sark, an Indigenous chef and pizza store owner, about potential paths toward reconciliation.

"I'm really encouraged by it," Sark said about the new scholarship. "The next big thing in the culinary world could pass you by if you don't have system of support in place."

Sark, who studied at the Culinary Institute of Canada in 2015, agrees the scholarship is one of many steps needed for reconciliation.

"I think over the last few years at a societal level, we have to reckon with a lot of things in our historical past," Sark said in an interview. "An opportunity in any context to help Indigenous students in their education is a positive."

The Culinary Institute of Canada has trained numerous chefs, including Charlie Sark, who now owns Charlie's Big Pizza in Lennox Island. (Submitted by Doug Currie)

Sark said he is pleased non-Indigenous people are making an effort to tackle systemic issues of racism, and hopes scholarship will set an example for others.

"I think there's a critical mass of people who want to see systemic change when it comes to Indigenous Peoples and their opportunities in our economy and our society," he said. 

"This can serve as one example in the world of food and culinary, but it doesn't have to be limited to just this sector or this industry." 

'Food is culture'

The culinary arts have an important role to play in Indigenous communities, Sark said. 

"Food is culture," he said. "[Indigenous] food and songs that contain food knowledge were outlawed at one point by the Canadian government."

Sark also said there is a need for more Indigenous cuisine in P.E.I. restaurants, as well as Indigenous-owned restaurants.

"There isn't a full-time restaurant where you can go to. Those exist in other provinces and cities in Canada."

However, there is potential for Indigenous restaurants to open on the Island, through the culinary school scholarship and other First Nation programs, he said.

"We have L'nuey and [Mi'kmaq Confederacy] P.E.I. who have managed to create open some space for entrepreneurs and chefs to thrive," he said. 

"I do see P.E.I. is on the cusp of entering that world or having a L'nuey, Mi'kmaw or Indigenous restaurant. Fingers crossed we'll see something soon, and this scholarship is a real key piece of that."

Sark encourages Islanders to visit the Lennox Island and Abegweit First Nations to try Indigenous cuisine for themselves. 

With files from Jessica Doria-Brown

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