The Bayline Food Buying Co-op was first thought of in 2012. Most communities along the Bayline (rail line) do not have year-round road access or local grocery stores. They have to travel by train, boat, or winter road to do their grocery shopping and this is very expensive. A food buying co-op will provide a regular shipment of pre-ordered foods to community members in partnership with Via Rail. It will reduce the time and money involved in grocery shopping and accessing good foods.
Since the project started there has been lots of work done, including a pre-feasibility study and many meetings. The project is spearheaded by Carol Sanoffsky as part of her role as Administrator for the Bayline Regional Round Table, but many other community leaders and members are helping with the work.
We started out in 2016 with community surveys to find out which types of food people would want to get, to learn about people’s interest and understanding of the food buying program and to get suggestions on how to run the program. The community champions in Thicket Portage and Pikwitonei, Marie Brightnose and Pauline Cordell, led the survey work and we learned a lot to help guide the program planning.
We have made partnerships with many organizations that are helping us to get the program off the ground. Just a few are the community councils of Thicket Portage, Pikwitonei and Iford, War Lake First Nation Chief and Council, VIA Rail, Frontier School Division and Dwyer’s Store in Wabowden.
We talked to people from the Fort Albany Food Security Committee who help run a fresh food market in Fort Albany on the James Bay coast. They have worked through challenges and are making the market work. For a while they had to ship food by truck, to a train and to a plane to get the food from Toronto to Fort Albany, but now they source their food from Thunder Bay which cuts down the transit time considerably. They had a lot of good insights to share with us about the logistics of running a food buying group and potential challenges we might face.
We also visited a group of Manitoba farmers who sell and package their meat or produce to sell directly to consumers. On the trip we got some good ideas about how to organize the orders and package the food for each ‘customer’. With all the work going into getting the co-op up and running we brought on Donna Sanoffsky as the Wabowden-based coordinator to help support community champions and to coordinate the start of the program. Donna has done loads of work organizing even more meetings, visiting the communities to share information, getting all the paperwork sorted out for starting the program and purchasing equipment we will need when we start.
We took huge steps forward in 2016 and are almost ready to start our first shipment. Our final step before we kick-off the program is holding a training session for all the community champions in Thompson, so they can get more familiar with the ordering and order checking processes.
To find out more about the Bayline Food Buying Co-op please read here.
To find out more about other community partners please read here.
In God's Lake First Nation, Bobby Ogemow, the ADI & NNC Coordinator at the God's Lake First Nation Health Center, have been working to increase local production of healthy foods in the community. The Bayline Regional Roundtable Coordinator, Carol Sanoffsky provides technical and planning support to this work as requested. Interested community members have been able to sign-up and receive help starting a garden or raising chickens and turkeys. In 2016 we also started increasing support for hunters and fishermen who share their meat and fish with the community.
We have helped start about 20 gardens in the community and we are working on getting a big community garden at our new health centre location. The Elders are involved and have lots of good gardening experience. In 2016, we produced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins and peas. We even have some peas growing in the wild here too, remnants of an old garden by a previous father. The gardeners share their veggies with Elders and chicken harvesters are sharing the chickens too. Last year we had one chicken raiser. He has lots of experience raising birds such as: chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, peacocks and even ostriches. He only lost 2 chicks last year. When he figured a weasel was responsible, he was able to stop it from getting into the coop. He also had a hawk that was perched outside the coop for a while, so he had to put netting over the top to protect the chickens. In other years we have had up to 8 people raising chickens in the community.
We helped hunters get out duck hunting and moose hunting in the spring and fall in 2016. There is a good moose hunting area about halfway to Shamattawa from God’s Lake. It’s about 100 km away so the hunters have to go out on float planes to get there. A few others went hunting at the different trapline areas that can be reached by boat. A couple of youths go with each hunting party; we try to mix up different families a bit. The hunters share the meat with Elders and the community at feasts. The Christmas Elder’s feast this year had fish caught with our support. We harvested enough fish throughout the summer and fall for community events and feasts. I think we have helped get more people going out hunting and fishing. When you look out on the lake, you always see lots of boats out there.
To address the food insecurity, we could do more work on increasing food literacy but right now we don’t have a place to do workshops about cooking, preserving or smoking. We want to build a smoker but need to get some supplies first. We have also been thinking about starting a beekeeping program in the community.
To find out more about the Local Healthy Foods Project please read here.
To find out more about other community partners please read here.
Community members in Poplar River First Nation have been actively exploring local food production options over the last five years. The community has a strong fishing industry and people are used to wild foods and fish. In 2012, the Health Centre focused their efforts on increasing gardening in the community and raising chickens. This work was supported by Leon Simard, First Nations Food Security Coordinator. Good food is hard to access in remote communities like Poplar River, and people want to learn more and do more about producing their own foods.
Since that time the Health Centre has steadily developed this work and now has a one acre garden site and a large community greenhouse that is 70 feet long and 20 feet wide. The grand opening of the Poplar River Greenhouse happened in summer of 2016. Everyone came out to see it including school children, RCMP, Chief and Council, Health Centre staff and lots of community members. It was the first year of operations for the greenhouse and people were learning what to do and how to grow things in a greenhouse. There was an interest in producing bedding plants for local beautification and vegetables for food. Greenhouse and garden staff are managed by the Health Centre. This year the school is going to get more involved.
In the fall of 2016 there was some vandalism to the greenhouse, but the young people responsible were identified and there have been conversations about not damaging things that are important to the community. “You could tell that this is an important place for us as a community because when it was vandalized everyone was upset. I think we have to keep trying and fixing it up,” said Sophia Rabliauskas, community member. “Our long term goal, after getting our community eating healthier and growing lots of our own foods, is to learn how to form a cooperative. We are interested in selling vegetables and sharing them around the area to other nearby communities (Berens River, Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi). This can only happen once we get good at our gardening and greenhouse operations and get enough people interested,” said Mary Bruce, Health Centre Director. In the coming seasons we are going to work more closely with the school. The school based portion of the project will provide children and youth with the opportunity to develop skills in food production and gardening as well as food preparation and nutritional information.
Planned activities for 2017 include: repairing and using the greenhouse, installing new fencing around the greenhouse and garden/orchard area, providing employment for a garden/ greenhouse coordinator, hooking up the vents and electrical heating in the greenhouse, providing training in greenhouse operation maintenance to staff and community members and providing training to community members in harvesting, drying, canning and freezing. Through these activities people will be incorporating fresh locally grown foods into their household meals and community events. The price of fresh vegetables will be cheaper and the school will have a program to instill pride and ownership in the existing facilities. We believe that in the future by developing curriculum materials and resources, all children attending school will have access to information, training and opportunities to grow and learn to enjoy healthy food grown in the community.
To find out more about the Negginan Food Producers Co-op please read here.
To find out more about other community partners please read here.
Food prices in Shamattawa are very high and the quality of food available is not very good, especially since the grocery store burnt down in the fall of 2016. People often cannot afford good food when it is available. There are also limited opportunities for young people to learn new skills and be involved in positive activities. The chicken project is a response to both of these needs.
Chicken coops were built with support from friends and family. We used a mixture of local and shipped materials to build the first coop and fence. When the chickens arrived they attracted a lot of interest and one person ran home and built a small coop, returning to pick up ten chickens the next day. 47 chickens out of 50 were raised and harvested. People were happy to see that it was possible to raise chicken in their community and continue to speak about it with pride. The coop became a place for young people to come visit and many of them helped out with feeding and watering. Along with youth, adults helped out when the main chicken raisers were away. Some community members are now looking to raise chickens for themselves, possibly take over the maintenance of the current coops and share the workload. Chickens were processed and shared with 12 families, plus the two families who raised them.
There were some initial challenges getting the coop built in time because of the weather, as well as ensuring the chicken feed was properly stored, as it had to come up the winter road. The fencing itself wasn’t complete until after the chicks arrived. Although the coop attracted lots of attention and excitement, some young people broke-in and hurt a half-dozen chickens in the first six weeks. Fortunately those chickens were able to be cooked and eaten, even if they didn’t reach the full size. For the main family raising chickens, it was a full-time commitment. While they were able to get some help from friends and family, it did make it more difficult for them to go out to camp. The summer is an important time to go out on the land to camp and tending the chickens will be a challenge if it prevents people from going. Shipping in feed and bedding was decided to make the initial year easier while the new chicken raisers got a feel for the work of raising chickens, but going forward it is important to the raisers and Food Matters Manitoba to find more local sources of bedding and feed. This would keep costs down as well as involve and benefit more people in the community.
Along with the new recreation programs and gardens, the chicken project is often talked about as something that is going well for Shamattawa. People struggle through many challenges, often so many that it can become overwhelming. Starting and continuing these types of initiatives is key to creating hope and finding a way forward. The chickens themselves are said to be the tastiest and chubbiest chickens that people in Shamattawa have seen. As they were shared with Elders and families with kids, the chickens clearly became a source of a good meal. This was at the very time the store had burned down, leaving many people without access to fresh foods like chicken. Raising local chickens could become part of the way that people feed themselves, especially with gardening, moose and goose hunting, trapping, fishing and picking berries.
In the coming year, both coops have people to take on the primary responsibility for raising chickens. Food Matters Manitoba will continue to provide support where needed, but most of the training will be passed between community members. Some people also talked about building their own coops and have gathered supplies. The Health Director will look at supporting chicken raising activities with newly hired youth workers. Again, supplies will be shipped over the winter road, but chicken raisers will work with Food Matters Manitoba and the youth workers to find good sources of food and bedding, through such ways as: seeding open spaces, collecting bedding materials and finding food scraps or trimmings. Local sources could supplement and eventually replace supplies that need to be brought over the winter road. Keeping the chicken coops running, opens the possibility of raising ducks and even egg laying hens. In order to set-up community chicken raising for the long-term, there has been talk about setting up a cooperative membership that could share the work, costs and of course the meat and eggs.
To find out more about the Shamattawa Chicken Project please read here.
To find out more about other community partners please read here.
There is no grocery store in Sherridon and the trip to Flin Flon takes more than an hour when roads are good. Since 2014, the community has established a number of food focused projects to address this challenge. In 2014 a community fishing program was started, and a community chicken coop was built. In 2015 Kitchwapaw Clan Mothers’ garden and a filleting shack were established and in 2016 the community built a smokehouse and acquired additional meat processing equipment. Food Matters Manitoba has been a helpful partner in this work. They have provided financial management of the grants, sourcing and arranging equipment and transportation.
The equipment and infrastructure is located on private property so that it can be monitored and kept secure. Even with these considerations, there have been challenges. In 2015, just as we were getting ready to harvest 200 mature chickens, all but one of the chickens were bird-napped in the middle of the night. This was very discouraging but didn’t stop us from raising birds again the following year.
Building the chicken coop, filleting shack and smokehouse took help and some creative thinking. Neighbours and families worked together. Larry said of the smoke shack “Pearl’s brother came and helped and the building was up in four days, including pouring the concrete pad. We piped the wood stove so that it could be used to heat the filleting shack when it is not being used in the smokehouse. This is better than purchasing two stoves and it wasn’t hard to move the small stove.” The food processing infrastructure is a gathering place. People who moved away 10 years ago for lack of work have come back to use the processing equipment and to visit. Stories are shared while fish and meats are being processed. Many of the people who were using it this year were people who grew up on that food and they had missed living on that kind of food. People were already complaining within a month that we should have gotten more fish and smoked more because their families were just gobbling it up. Fish patties made with ground fish were a particular hit with the kids.
Between fish, moose and caribou meat, approximately 1,600 pounds was smoked in the first season. The amount of food that is gathered and preserved is big. It reduces the amount of time and money people would otherwise have to spend leaving the community to go spend in the grocery store. The smokehouse keeps more of our resources locally.
Many people are remembering their skills and even learning some new ones. There are not too many kids helping with the processing yet, though in the fall of 2016 when the Collaborative funder group visited Sherridon, two local nine-year-olds, River and Steven, showed the visitors how to process chickens and fillet fish. We had 5 or 6 of the smaller kids (6 to 10 year olds) who were in with us helping make the sausage. They got to fill the grinder and make the sausage. One little girl was able to identify that it was moose meat just from the smell of the raw meat. Maybe this year we would work with the Youth Centre and the Kids Come First committee to do some workshops for the kids to learn this stuff.
One of the challenges with these projects is maintaining consistent help and planning efforts. There is initial excitement when the chicks arrive, but while the chickens are growing the support from others tends to slow down. Come harvest time people are there to help. In 2017, the smokehouse people are planning to go out and cut wood together so there isn’t a shortage. There is a back-up propane system for the smokehouse but it leaves a different taste in the meat.
The community has struggled with how to advertise and share the food processing resources. Long standing divides between some families make community harmony an ongoing challenge. In 2016, the rules, expectations and procedures for requesting time in the smoke shack were posted at the community council office.
For the future, there are plans to add a few more sets of racks to the smokehouse and hangers to hang sausage in there as well. That can be done with local materials. We also hope to get boarded community support and involve the Kids Come First committee in the projects by doing more workshops with the kids and teaching them how to use the tools. The chicken coop will continue to have about 200 birds per year, with people giving a small donation for the birds so that there is enough money to get chicks and feed for the following year.
To find out more about Sharing More Food From the Land please read here.
To find out more about other community partners please read here.
Ithinto Mechisowin means ‘food from the land’. This program responded to the community’s desire to return to traditional ways and improve community food security. The community champions believed that a food program inspired by OPCN’s land based food harvesting culture could be the way to fulfill and unite these two goals. Through Ithinto Mechisowin Program (IMP), the community food champions explored how this dream could be made a reality, under the wing of OPCN’s Tommy Thomas Memorial Health Complex and Community Care and Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative program. The Oscar Blackburn School (OBS), OPCN Band, Fishermen’s Association, Trappers Association have all been providing in kind support for the program since its inception. IMP is managed by a community committee that includes Elders, teachers, health care professionals, fishers, and more.
IMP provides training to youth on wild food and medicine harvesting, preparation, preservation and cooking techniques every season. Harvested and prepared food is shared with 350-400 people every month. Food is distributed every week based on the availability, need and number of family members. A number of people with diabetes have self- reported that the regular intake of wild food has been keeping their blood sugar low, helping to lose weight and reduce hypertension. In addition, the weekly food distribution is helping people to boost their mental health. IMP office space has become a community social gathering place, especially for Elders, youth and food champions. We believe this positive environment is contributing towards healing and bringing out courage to deal with everyday challenges that the community members have been facing since the hydro flooding and displacement in the early 70s.
IMP runs workshops through the different seasons. The workshop helps OPCN people to reconnect with land and provide access to a healthy, culturally appropriate diet. We have seen growing interest and participation from youth, elders and adults to learn about different types of land based food and get seasonal food harvesting and medicine picking experience. We think the workshops are creating opportunities for more physical activity for the entire community which is required for a healthy lifestyle. Workshops we do include: winter fishing, rabbit snaring, medicine picking, indoor gardening, goose hunting, berry picking, moose hunting, wild meat preparation and land safety skills.
Students from our community have been able to make participatory videos about their experiences and they have even travelled Canada and abroad to share what we are doing and how we are reclaiming our culture and health.
There are challenges to our program, these challenges include: staff turnover, limited funding and support, the challenges that local people face with poverty and health make it hard for them to participate regularly, weather can mess up our plans for harvesting and workshops, but we still continue. We consider IMP a testimony of Indigenous strength and a validation for positive outcome of Indigenous food sovereignty. IMP is a truly community driven initiative. John Bonner, former IMP coordinator said, “This program encourages people to get back on the land. It helps us recover from the shock of the flooding and all of the changes in the community that have happened.”
To find out more about the Ithinto Mechisowin Program please read here.
To find out more about other community partners please read here.
Written by: Sara Hsiao and Becky Cook
The NMFCCC is excited to announce the “re-freshed” Collaborative website! Over the last 6 months, we’ve been working to gather input on improving our website, and to re-assess how we share information relevant to Collaborative members. We hope that our re-freshed website is easier to navigate, showcases the great work of our partners, and focuses more on story sharing and learning.
Big thank you to Brian Trewin from Leaf Rapids and Toryan McCorrister from Peguis First Nation, who spent time reviewing the website and recommending improvements. We value your input and eye for design and detail!
Though we’ve “re-freshed” we are always open to more feedback and input on what partners would find useful on the website. So, please be in touch if you have thoughts and recommendations on content or resources you’d like to see here.
As part of our effort to sharing stories, we’d like to also launch a series of blog posts that highlight the work of our community partners. Our community partners are spread across Northern Manitoba, from Brochet to Garden Hill, and have each envisioned their own innovative solution to increasing access to healthy food. These Northern communities are taking their future into their own hands, relearning traditional ways, building up new local food solutions and new local economies.
In the upcoming blog series that will be posted on our website each week, you will read about some of the positive stories of people taking action and creating hope, strength, and healing. Check back each week for a new story!
If you’re eager, you can read all these stories and more, in the Community Booklets here!
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.”