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.