By: Tabitha Martens
By: Becky Cook
Two weeks into my new role as Program Associate with Tides Canada working on the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Collaborative (NMFCCC), I had the opportunity to go on the 2016 NMFCCC Learning Trip. The Collaborative's fourth learning trip took us to Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) and Sherridon for one week. The trip provides the Collaborative's funders with an opportunity to get to know the community partners, learn about life in northern communities, and understand some of the challenges the people on the ground face. As I am new to the Collaborative, this was my first learning trip experience. It was a fun way to learn more about the Collaborative’s values and meet the representatives from a few of the different funders as well as the community partners.
The trip was a great experience for me and I would like to thank all of the community members from OCN and Sherridon that welcomed us into their communities, shared their experiences with us, and kept us busy for the week. It was great to meet all of you (some again) and learn more about the work you are doing to build healthier communities. I really enjoyed the time we spent on the land in OCN and getting our hands dirty in Sherridon filleting fish and slaughtering chickens.
Opaskwayak Cree Nation
I grew up in Misipawistik Cree Nation in northern Manitoba just downstream from OCN, so I had been there a few times before. When we arrived on Monday evening we were welcomed by the garden group, community Elders, and some of the newly elected Councillors, Chief Christian Sinclair and Vice Chief Jennifer Flett at the Kikiwak Hotel. We went through introductions and learned about the work the garden group has done to make the garden a welcoming place for all members of the community. I really liked hearing about their system of having lead gardeners for the different plots—it spreads the workload out and helps to get more people involved.
On Tuesday, we got out on the land and visited some of the areas around the community. We had a slightly wet lunch at Moose Park before heading off to Pike Lake for the afternoon. Our hosts brought out the traditional voyaging canoes and bows and arrows so we could test out our skills. After the skills competition, we sat around the fire and learned more about the garden group's plans for the future. Now that the gardens are well established, the group was not sure if they would apply for another grant from the NMFCCC. They made it clear that even if they did not apply for another grant, they still want us to visit. A sentiment that I believe arises from the Collaborative's values, which were the subject of ongoing discussions during our trip.
The Collaborative values reciprocity, shared learning, working collaboratively, and building relationships in a slow and committed way. On our trip, we had deep discussions about relationships and breaking down the transactional and sometimes dysfunctional relationships many funders have with the programs and people they support. Some on the trip expressed concerns about creating dependencies and defining end points for funding. While these are valid concerns, they are concerns relevant to the traditional transactional funding relationships. Within the Collaborative, the goal is to build relationships with the communities we support. A lot of time and energy is spent on getting to know each other, sharing stories, and learning from each other—all with the goal of empowering community members to “be the change they want to see” in their communities. Talking about end points for the community-Collaborative relationship can be detrimental to the relationship, and could undermine the trust between communities and the Collaborative.
As indicated by the members of the OCN Garden Group, the relationship should continue past the point when a group decides they do not need ongoing monetary support. The Collaborative’s role in the ongoing relationship can be to provide non-monetary support through facilitating peer-to-peer learning exchanges and other events to promote networking, problem solving, friendship, and story sharing.
While in OCN we also had the opportunity to visit the ‘Plant Factory ’─another initiative that helps address the availability of fresh vegetables in the north. The ‘Plant Factory’ uses technology developed in South Korea and brought to OCN through a partnership between OCN Cree Nation and South Korean businessmen. The highly technical operation uses specialized LED lights and nutrient supplements to grow vegetables inside on vertically stacked shelves. It was a stark contrast to the work that the garden group is doing, and it will be interesting to see how the two projects can work in tandem to address health problems brought about by lack of healthy foods.
The highlight of our visit to OCN by far was the dinner we had on Tuesday evening at the garden. The garden group has done a lot of work at the site and it was a truly beautiful setting to get together and share food. The newest project, the summer kitchen, was put to good use and I can’t wait to go back and try out the clay oven when it is finished. Carrots and beets from the garden accompanied the roast bison for our main course, followed by delicious fresh rhubarb and blueberry pies for dessert. Councillor Omar Constant got us all laughing with his storytelling and moose calling contest. Everyone had the chance to show off their pipes and although the locals put up some stiff competition, three of the visitors from our group placed, winning fresh pumpkin and squash from the garden.
On Wednesday, we travelled from OCN to Sherridon and got a bit of time to explore before getting down to business. We stayed at the Kenanow Lodge Hotel on the shores of Camp Lake, which had tailings dumped in it when the Sherritt-Gordon Mine was operating from 1931 to 1951. The lake has since had extremely low pH and all the people in the town know not to swim or even touch the water in the lake because it is so acidic. The view of the tailings pile in the lake from the hotel was blocked, but we could see that all of the driftwood in the lake and the rocks along the shoreline were covered with a layer of rust or oxidized iron, a common by-product of acid mine drainage.
We were joined by the community partners for supper at the lodge, where we had an awesome chocolate cake to celebrate my two-week anniversary with the Collaborative. After supper we talked about the National Orphaned and Abandoned Mines Initiative (NOAMI) and the work the Manitoba Mines Branch is doing to clean up Camp Lake under the Mine Site Rehabilitation program. The stories from the community did not live up to the optimism presented on the Manitoba Mines Branch website. We heard about unsuccessful attempts to neutralise the lake with lime which ended up blowing around the community and shutting down the school for several weeks. The community members expressed their concerns about the potential adverse health effects for themselves and their children as a result of breathing in the lime dust. The worst part was that after the liming, the lake's pH dropped down to around 2 to 3 again after only a short period of neutralisation. The community members are now fighting to keep the waters from Camp Lake from being released into Kississing Lake which supports one of the few economic opportunities in the community─-fishing tourism. It was heart-breaking to hear the perspective of the community. After tens of millions of dollars spent on the clean-up they still have an acidic lake, which if water is released could destroy one of the very few economic opportunities left for the community members.
The next day in Sherridon was definitely more light-hearted. We spent our time checking out some of the projects in the community like the smoke shacks and the chicken coop. A few of us even got to go out on Kississing Lake to see how to set and lift a gill net. We didn’t get the chance to smoke any fish but we did learn to fillet pickerel and to pluck and clean the chickens. I was particularly happy to try the fish filleting. I am embarrassed to say it was my first time trying it out, despite spending at least a hundred hours in a fish shed watching my dad and other fishermen clean their fish. At least now I can say I have done it before if anyone asks, but I still think I need a bit more practice before I can say I can I am an expert filleter.
That evening we had an ‘American-style’ dinner as I was told by one of the community members who came to join us. We had a classic shore-lunch of fried pickerel, bannock, corn, and beans. It was the best fish I have had in a long time; I don’t think I have had fish that fresh since my dad quit fishing 22 years ago. The dinner at the town hall was open to everyone and it gave us visitors the chance to meet some more of the community members. It was great to hear stories from people with such a strong connection to the land living in an area far removed from the rest of the province (except for exploration and mining operations). Some of the community members have memories of growing up completely on the land, not relying on the western economy that colonization has brought to Canada. To me, that is true food sovereignty. The key is to remember how to do this in a respectful way, to ensure the animals and the ecosystem that supports all of us survive to feed the generations that follow us.
Going on this learning trip was extremely valuable experience for all involved and it was interesting to see the contrasts between the two communities. Each community is unique and has their own unique challenges. Sherridon and OCN are only 185 km apart but they are very different communities. Opaskwayak Cree Nation and The Pas have a combined population of approximately 8,000 versus 80 in Sherridon. In OCN, they have a large group of gardeners who share the responsibility of taking care of the gardens and the work that went into hosting our group. In Sherridon—amuch smaller community with little infrastructure—the community partners often struggle to find the support they need within their community.
These immersive learning trips are important for the Collaborative to better understand how to support communities and appreciate their challenges and opportunities, but I hope in the future we do more to make sure our partners know that it is okay to put us to work. It is part of the learning and we definitely do not want to overwhelm our community partners when we visit.
By Gillian Grant
The Hunters’ Festival wrapped up in North Caribou Lake First Nation on Sunday. Seven moose, forty partridges, one beaver, one swan and a boat load of pickerel and ducks. The festival has been running for 26 years. What is new this year are the fresh vegetables! With funding from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, North Caribou Lake was able to develop their first community garden in decades. Vegetables from the first harvest were shared and eaten for the week long event.
“There are too many negative stories about Native people in the media,” says Chief Dinah Kanate. “This garden is a good news story.”
“We used to have a garden when we were kids,” says Kanate’s brother John. “It stopped when my mom died. Everybody stopped gardening. I don’t know why. I stopped eating fresh vegetables because it got too expensive to buy them at the store”.
A small bag of baby carrots sells for around $8; fresh carrots are no longer fresh by the time they arrive in this fly in community in northern Ontario, or they simply aren’t stocked on the shelves.
“If there was healthy affordable food I would eat it. Now there is. Actually, it’s free and right here in the garden, “ says John with a grin.
John harvested his own carrots this year from the new garden. He adds,”they are really good, not like the store bought carrots. They are fresher and taste kind of sweet.”
The Chief was quick to agree after tasting a handful of fresh lettuce, “this tastes so different than from the store. So fresh and delicious.”
The garden began as part of the after care program for the patients at New Horizons in North Caribou Lake First Nation. This is a hugely successful community based and governed Prescription Drug Abuse treatment program. There are similar programs in 15 other communities in Northwestern Ontario. Edna Queqish is the co-ordinator of New Horizons. “An important part of our work is helping our clients get their life skills back, gardening is a wonderful tool. Next year I hope we plant a potato garden like my grandfather used to have.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation asked Steven Vassallo, a gardener from Markdale Ontario to help facilitate the garden project. He arranged for the gardening supplies to be shipped over the ice in the winter and tilled the bog by the band office in the spring. “There are some soil challenges here but the suitability of the bog peat has been improved with a little fish compost and minerals creating a great base for a wide range of vegetables,” explains Vassallo.
Ultimately this will be a sustainable community garden. People like Councilor Roy Sakchekapo and Zeb Kenequanash and his grandson Richard helped all season in the garden, building and maintaining the greenhouse and watering the plants . “ I am a first time gardener,” says Zeb, an after care worker with New Horizons, “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I am learning and I want to learn more. A group of us helped pick the vegetables for the community last week.”
Lettuce, carrots, beans, peas, green onions, kale and cabbage were harvested and distributed for the Hunters Festival. Tomatoes are growing in the greenhouse that was built in June. “This garden started as a project for New Horizons,” says Vassallo, “but interest from the whole community is growing. “
There was a buzz at the Hunters Festival when John Matawapit and Lorraine Keeash tossed kale, cabbage, green onions and carrots into their moose stew. Says Lorraine, “people were calling these vegetables my secret ingredient. It’s the first time I have had fresh ingredients from a garden. It tastes good. I can taste the freshness, much better than the frozen vegetables I usually use.”
Vassallo joined the New Horizon’s cooking crew and helped serve up moose tacos with fresh lettuce on top. At first the kids were unsure but after grade one student Ashley Keeash agreed to try it, the line up was ten deep, each challenging the other, “can you taste the difference? Do you know where it’s from? It’s from the garden. It’s more fresh right?”
“It’s great to watch the kids getting excited, “ says Chief Dinah Kanate. “ We have to start young, get them interested early. We need to keep this garden going.”
Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox is thrilled that the pilot year of the garden project was a success in North Caribou Lake First Nation, “not only can a community garden address the urgent need for fresh fruits and vegetables in Northern First Nation communities but it’s also a simple, sustainable solution to the high cost of nutritious food.”
From June 15-17, Sarah Chee and Julie Price from Tides Canada travelled to South Indian Lake/O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (OPCN), Manitoba (four hours north of Thompson). Joined by community grantees and staff from Food Matters Manitoba and TNC Canada, the trip was the second community learning exchange this year and provided participants the chance to exchange and share their knowledge of country foods (traditional foods sourced from the land) and visit OPCN’s successful Ithinto Mechisowin Program.
The agenda included presentations, a tour of the IMP building, and a boat tour of the South Indian Lake area (which was drastically affected by the Churchill River Diversion Dam project in the 1970s). OPCN was also kind enough to include attendees in their Heritage Day Celebration with local youth. The celebration included games and teachings, such as traditional ways to make bannock, fix goose, and cut and prepare moose, and fish. Trip attendees also offered up their knowledge of traditional medicine and foraging, including picking Labrador leaves for tea and spruce sap for gum or a salve (when melted down with lard or honeycomb).
Toward the end of the trip, attendees also trekked to Leaf Rapids to visit their NMFCCC-supported nursery and greenhouse project and the Nelson House country foods program, which has been running since 1992.
“It was remarkable to see Julie in action and to better understand the challenges of on-the-ground work and see the reputation of Tides Canada in the area thanks to her work and relationship building,” said Sarah. “As a “southerner”, I didn’t fully comprehend some of the difficulties in working with remote Northern communities and how important the manner in which we conduct our grantmaking can be (e.g. multiyear funding). So much trust has to be earned to be truly effective and to empower community members. It was wonderful to see how keen and involved the community members are and how they are improving their health and economy, reclaiming culture, and rebuilding community and intergenerational bonds with food. It really tied together how analogous the NMFCCC work is to so much of our other work, but the mechanism of change here is food.”
In 2014, the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Collaborative was established to work with communities to address the region’s serious food security challenges. In the remote communities in Northern Manitoba people struggle with very high rates of poverty, food insecurity, and related health issues. It was not always this way though, and community members have responded by launching an increasing number of innovative local solutions. Fishing cooperatives, gardens, wild food programs, bee apiaries, and greenhouses—these are just some of the ways northerners are using food to build community, improve health, strengthen local economies, provide opportunity for youth, and reclaim culture.
Read more here, and download a copy of the 2015 community report.
Iris Vaisman, Prairie Coordinator, Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security interviewed on May 26, 2016 by Julie Price
In April, 2016 approximately 55 people attended one of two workshops in Leaf Rapids Manitoba. Workshops were focused on skill building related to gardening and green-housing in the northern boreal forest, and in having people share information and stories with each other about growing plants in the north. Approximately 50 of the participants were community members for 18 different northern Manitoba communities. Another 8 people were from various southern-based organizations that wish to help out and partner with northern communities as they work for improved food access and local food sovereignty. Both Iris and Julie attended this event.
The first thing that comes to mind is meeting everyone. It was a combination of people being really cool and nice, and the fact that I find what they are doing so interesting. It was great to learn about them as people, to learn their personal stories and histories, and to learn what they are doing around food.
Another thing I really liked was hearing about what can grow in the boreal north and the technical details of how to grow different plants. I was amazed at the diversity of the vegetables you can grow and the diversity of the food production methods. The technical side of horticulture stuff appealed to me. Also, hearing stories about hunting and fishing and other ways that people gather food from the land was really great.
The cooking session at the workshop was so great. I really enjoyed everyone’s company and cooking together. It was really fun. Just being up there and in the community was really great. It’s important to be there I think.
What would you have changed about the event? How?
The first thing that comes to mind is name tags. For someone like me, everyone was new and I wanted to remember their names and to connect with them.
There was a fair amount of sharing time, but it felt like there needed to be more sharing about what was happening at the beginning of the workshop – for people to talk more about what they are doing in their communities. Giving more time for people to share their own experiences instead of being as heavy as it was in learning from the presenters.
There was a lot of information that was covered. I think going slower and doing a bit less but in more depth would have been good. However, I also know that there is so much to cover and people had different interests.
There were a few people that I was able to talk to about the history of their communities. These conversations stood out to me. I spoke to Hilda at length and she told me about the story of South Indian Lake, and about life before and after the damn (Churchill River Diversion). These were new stories to me. I had thought about hydro in northern Manitoba, and knew it was disruptive, but now I realize a bit more about how disruptive it was to people and communities. I had never heard a story directly from a person who was so negatively affected. This was new to me.
What new ideas or thoughts do you have about northern horticulture?
I didn’t realize how many things you could grow up there! All of the root vegetables, brassicas, strawberries, barley, and so on. You can grow such a diversity of foods! I don’t think I would have made that connection without seeing it myself. I thought that only a few things could grow there because of the climate.
and there are so many types of seeds available. To me it was more informal seed saving relative to what I see in the south. But that is not a bad thing. Part of me thinks it’s really lovely and beautiful to save seeds this way, and sometimes I would like to keep things not as strict. I recognize that there is value to both approaches to seed saving.
How will this trip inform your work moving forward?
There were a few technical things that I learned there (carrot seed tape, micro greens) that I haven’t necessarily used yet to inform my work but I can see using the information in the future. There is an aspect of the story telling that will inform my work as well as technical information about food production. I learned a lot in general, knowledge-wise too.
I think part of it is related to the comment about thinking more holistically and thinking about being more comfortable in talking about climate change and speaking about all of the generations. I don’t know how that will come out in a concrete way, but I want to maintain that essence in my work.
Something that I have noticed that is different since I attended the workshop is that I bring it up in conversations. I attend conferences and meetings and I am sharing stories of where I have been, conversations I had with people, and things that I have learned about. Northern and Indigenous people, foods and food systems are not always well represented in the conversations or the workshops that I attend.
Originally posted on Oct 19, 2015
After being closed for many years, the commercial fishing plant in Garden Hill First Nation, a fly-in community in Northern Manitoba, is up and running again. Float planes—carrying up between 800 and 1,400 pounds of fish—are able to do two trips a day in and out of the community to bring the fish to market.
In Garden Hill, fishing is very important culturally. It is something that’s always been done. The re-opening of the fish plant is an important milestone for the community, and an economic opportunity that offers food and employment prospects to the surrounding community.
Read the full blog here.
Interviewed on Oct 16, 2015 by Julie Price
What stands out in your mind about the Learning Trip to Garden Hill First Nation?
I remember a lot of things about Garden Hill. I was retelling my story yesterday to my friend and the one thing that really stands out to me about Garden Hill is the isolation. It’s so isolated and separated. The people seem disconnected from traditions and what it means to live off the land. But Garden Hill is beautiful, it was a beautiful place. And everyone seemed so friendly. It was strange, everyone says hello to you. They would wave to you from their vehicles. It was a nice welcome when we were there, like we had been there a long time or we were already part of the family.
Another thing that stood out to me was the fishermen. Fish is important. Everywhere we go there were boats, everyone uses a boat, partly because you have to. We had to use a boat to get from lodge to town, to the store, to get anywhere. We talked about fish as a source of nutrients for the plants, as the best way to improve the soil. We talked about fish everywhere we went. Fish are important as medicine to people, and for jobs in the community. The fishermen stood out to me.
What was it like for you to travel with a group of people from all over Canada?
I am used to travelling with groups, so that felt pretty normal to be together with everyone. What was different about this group was everyone’s different way of thinking and the diversity. It was nice. Everyone thought differently but we all had the same idea of what we have a as vision for a better future for everybody. I think that was a good thing.
After visiting Meechim Farm and the Meechim Fresh Market, what are your thoughts on that project?
I thought that was pretty cool with the chickens. Wow they raised a lot of chickens! It’s a really sweet idea. They are obviously not yet selling a lot of vegetables that they grew, but they are selling vegetables that people can afford to buy. I talked to people (customers) in the fresh market and asked them what they thought about buying food there. They said they were able to buy fresh food and good meats and eggs at the market instead of going across the lake. They told me it was more affordable and doesn’t cost everyone an arm and a leg to get some decent food.
I think it’s a good project, but they do need a lot of work in the gardening area. They don’t yet have gardening skills about planting and harvesting. I was talking to the people who have been working there and they don’t really know too much about it yet. If I ever go back there I would like to exchange ideas and share with them what I know. The staff people seemed excited about having a farm. I think they are all passionate about it. At first it was probably just a job, but it seems like they realize how big it could become. I explained about our project in Leaf Rapids and how it was just a trailer park and how there was nothing there. About how we cleared it out, and cut the grass and dug the soil and started planting. And now it is the most beautiful garden ever. And there in Garden Hill they have already gotten so far on their project, it could be amazing. They have cleared so much land and they have that farm building. I would like to go back again and share ideas, and help them learn more about growing food. It’s exciting to think about what they could accomplish.
About the Wabung Fishers Cooperative, what are your thoughts on that project?
It’s a really cool project. I like that they have a formed a cooperative. It means that people are really passionate about their work; it’s not just that they need money; there is passion there. You can see how hard people are working. It’s good that they got it going and got the deal with freshwater.
The community needs for these guys to have jobs so they can provide for their families. It’s so hard to live there, I was blown away by how expensive stuff is and how people are having a hard time. Some of the housing is in rough shape. People need opportunity and this is important opportunity for the community.
Tell me about the visit to the school.
The school was so amazing. I loved it. It is a big school, they have a lot of things that every school needs. The school was beautiful, there were lots of students. A lot of the kids were asking us if we were teachers. The bad thing they had was a pop machine in the school, I was looking around for a poster to contradict that pop was good, like a diabetes poster, but there wasn’t one!
When we went to the elementary school, I was blown away that they were learning their language at such a young age. I loved that there was an OjiCree lady teaching the kids their own language. That was so cool. I wish I had that chance as a kid and I wish I knew my language. I was a little jealous but also very happy that they get to keep that part of their heritage. It’s good that they have that (language) and that they are doing gardening and fishing. Trying to go back to living on the land is an important thing. I hope that us coming by the school and telling them about it more kids get involved in the project.
What was it like to speak to that big group of grade 10’s and 8’s?
Wow, it was different. It was weird. Usually I can’t do crowds. I don’t like it and I can’t talk or I choke. But right then in front of those kids, I had the words going and I was telling my story. I had their full attention and I thought wow, they really want to hear this. I liked it. Now if I were put in front of a crowd I think I could do it again. I overcame my fears. I felt like one of those guys who are motivational speakers – I liked sharing what I have done with my life and where I am now.
Why did you agree to become a Northern Advisor to the Northern Manitoba FCCF?
First thing, when you asked if I wanted to be a Northern Advisor, I wondered what that was and what I would be doing. I wanted to find out and learn more. I wanted to go out and learn; I wanted to know what was happening with this fund; and why people were coming up here (Leaf Rapids, South Indian Lake in 2014) to visit. I guess for me I agreed for the learning experience and to meet new people and to gain new knowledge.
So now that you have been doing it for a while, what do you see as your role as a Northern Advisor?
Our role is to guide you guys, because you don’t get to see what we have seen and what we grew up with. We tell you what bad choices some people are making, what good choices people are making. I have been part of two bands (Granville Lake & O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation) and I have gotten to experience different things.
In South Indian Lake (OPCN) it’s the hydroelectric dam that has flooded everything and messed up the water and fish. In Granville it was the sewage system that backed up and made everyone so sick that we had to evacuate the community. In both communities stuff happened, and I learned.
It’s interesting to hear other communities trying to go those avenues (sewer systems, hydro dams) and I’ve been through that. If you don’t get the right people you could have people getting sick, you could lose your fish. Our role is to help you understand some of these things.
by Julie Price
Organizing a group of eight people from across Canada to visit a small, fly-in First Nation in the northern boreal forest of Manitoba comes with its share of stress and challenges. Will the cloud ceiling be high enough for our planes to fly? Will the local boat drivers be at the dock when we need them? Will trip participants new to this experience feel culture shock? Will the community feel heard and supported, or god-forbid – inspected?
It is with some relief, much joy, and many tough but important questions remaining that we ended our week in Garden Hill First Nation, Treaty 5 territory.
The community people in Garden Hill demonstrated determination to move their people into a stronger, healthier place. Fishers shared stories explaining why the work matters, why the fish matter, why keeping culture strong matters. Shyness slipped away as a group of grade 8 boys toured us through their school showing us the resources to help them grow their bodies and minds. At Meechim Farm we learned about the sweat invested into achieving the vision of a farm for Garden Hill and the associated ‘fresh market’ that increases community access to healthy foods.
All of this effort in the midst of the obvious challenges of limited and poor housing, incomplete services (sewer, water), a very young local population (half of the community is 18 or younger), high prices and low incomes, and the presence of gangs and violence in the community. People continue to amaze and inspire me in their perseverance and spirit and their commitment to a better quality of life for future generations.
Our visitor group was welcomed, and as the days passed, the sense of open exchange grew. Local people were amazed that we stayed for more than one day; that we kept showing up each morning. Increasingly open exchange with the community helped us to have deeper reflective conversations each evening. What is our role in northern indigenous projects? How best do we partner with northern indigenous communities in a supportive and productive way? How do we navigate and understand the complex challenges and opportunities faced by northern boreal people? How can a collaborative group of northern advisors, private funders, government funders, and supportive organizations work to reduce barriers and increase opportunity in northern indigenous communities? Can we even do this at all and should we be here? It is good to consider these questions and even better to work them through as a group.
Of course I don’t have all of the answers to those big questions. But as a group, I know we have more diverse perspectives, enhanced reflective powers, a broader set of skills and experiences, and more hearts and minds to apply to the task of becoming good partners in this important work. And I do firmly believe that we cannot begin without first sitting down with community members and trying to understand and learn from each other. We cannot become good partners without investing the time to know each other.
Heartfelt thanks to those in Garden Hill who were so welcoming, and helpful, and really made our trip possible. Thanks also to the trip participants who made the time and effort to be part of the continuing conversation. Finally, gratitude to the earth for keeping the cloud ceiling high, mostly holding off the rain and snow, and allowing our visitor group to see the beauty of northern Manitoba!
by Andi Sharma
My first thoughts upon entering the community started way up in the tiny plane as we approached the runway. The sheer vastness of Island Lake, with its bounty of small islands dotting the surface, unfolded beneath the plane as we came in for the landing. It struck me then that the stunning beauty of such remote isolation – the pristine waters, the seemingly endless boreal forest and all of the abundant wildlife that comes with these traditional, largely untouched lands – was at once the root of the problem and a pathway out of poverty for this community.
First stop on the trip was the Northern Store. It was an opportunity for the group to assess the costs of fresh food in the north and provide context for the food security work of the collaborative. I am quite familiar with the exorbitant food prices in northern Manitoba but even I was taken aback by a few of the prices. When you consider that sometimes 80% of a northern community can be on social assistance; and also consider that the daily food/personal item allotments for northern assistance in Manitoba amounts to approximately $16/day for a single mother of one; it seems a daunting task to feed a family on healthy foods when it’s $8.50 for a bunch of bananas, over $12 for 4 vine-ripened tomatoes and sometimes over $100 for 24-pack of drinking water at the Northern Store. This daily allowance also needs to cover much needed purchases such as diapers, so there are clearly tough decisions being made at the family level because of these prices.
The NMFCCF acknowledges the importance of industry in the north and hopes to help with the long journey to self-sufficiency by empowering communities to localize food systems through enterprise in order to avoid unjust pricing practices while simultaneously creating economic opportunity.
These meals would not have been possible without the tireless dedication of Ivan and Myra Harper, the local community healers and general adherents to traditional indigenous epistemologies. They are but one example of the generosity that seemed characteristic of the community. And yet, they seemed set apart by their tradition - surrounded by a world influenced heavily by modernity that feels disconnected from custom and heritage. Ivan made this painfully clear when he noted that we would be hard pressed to find someone without diabetes in any Garden Hill family; however he and his wife, who still eat largely a traditional foods diet, have escaped that seemingly inevitable fate for most of northern Manitoba’s First Nations people. Importantly, experts have found that this level of chronic diabetes is largely due to the changes in lifestyle brought about by colonization. The NMFCCF strives to support and encourage traditional practices as a critical pathway to reclaiming food sovereignty for indigenous nationhood.
The following morning was spent with two schools worth of Garden Hill’s children! There is nothing quite like the perspective of a child – so refreshingly honest and filled with promise. We asked them about their schools and their communities and they were eager to show us around and share their stories. When asked, one little boy spoke about gardening with his kokum and moshum and how it’s his favorite way to spend time with them. For such a young life, he was full of insight around why gardening is important and how it helps his family’s access to food, “my kokum says it’s good for you and it’s free”. Intergenerational knowledge transfer is another cornerstone of NMFCCF projects. Wherever possible, the collaborative likes to see youth engagement on food security projects because as we all know, the youth represent the hopes and dreams of a food secure nation.
Next on the agenda was a visit to Meechim Inc., a social enterprise project that employs community members to locally produce vegetables, fruit and small livestock (chickens and turkeys). It was very clear from the moment you stepped onto the farm that there was an enormous amount of work carried out in a relatively short period of time. The monumental undertaking of clearing the brush for over 10 acres of land, while constructing a greenhouse and farmhouse from nothing, and also taking care of chickens, turkeys and weeds – seemed just staggering. And yet here I was, approximately 8 months after funding had been released, looking at incredible transformation of the abstract paperwork I complete in the
Last, but certainly not least, was a trip to visit the local commercial fishing plant. The plant itself had fallen into disrepair at the hands of vandals, but that mattered little to the group that was touring us around the facility. They spoke with clarity, purpose and vision about where the plant would be in one year and how it would impact the community for generations. We sat with the elders and knowledge keepers of traditional fishing practices to hear their stories, understand their challenges and celebrate their accomplishments. One of the most beautiful moments of this visit was watching the elder fishermen defer to their sons and nephews, the next generation of traditional fishermen that they are raising through this project, to show us southerners how to set a fishing net.
for such a more robust experience of philanthropy and I am grateful to have shared these memories with some wonderful people, all trying to make a difference in our little northern corner of the world.