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.