The Yellowknife Food Charter: Driving collaborative action for food security

Carla Johnston & Tracey Williams

Food insecurity in the Northwest Territories (NWT) is the second highest in Canada, with over 24% of households experiencing moderate to high levels (Tarasuk, Mitchell, & Dachner, 2016; Council of Canadian Academies, 2014). At the same time, there are further signals that all is not well with food systems in the NWT. The obesity rate in the NWT is 10% higher than the Canadian average (Government of Northwest Territories [GNWT], 2011b) and there has been a well-documented nutrition transition among the NWT’s Indigenous populations from land-based diets to dependence on imported foods of low nutritional value with detrimental health effects (Receveur, Boulay, & Kuhnlein, 1997; Sharma et al., 2009; Zotor et al., 2012; Sheehy et al., 2014). As well, climate change is fundamentally altering landscapes in the NWT (Price et al., 2013) and is limiting access and availability of traditional food sources.

NWT communities are responding to these food security crises in a multitude of ways, including through civil society action and by pursuing local food and agriculture policies. The Yellowknife Farmers’ Market (YKFM) has taken action by prioritizing food insecurity to create the Yellowknife Food Charter and the Yellowknife Food Charter Coalition. The Charter sets out a vision and principles for a just and sustainable food system in Yellowknife, expressing a community mandate for collective action on food security issues.

In this article we share the process and collaborative work that is happening through the Yellowknife Food Charter and Coalition. It begins with a description of food system actions and policy work that has occurred in the North and the NWT as well as a brief outline of what food charters are and how they have been used across North America. Then, we discuss what the Yellowknife Food Charter is and its foundation in a food systems approach. Finally, we give a history of how the Charter came to be, what it is happening now and conclude with thoughts for the future.

Northern food system action and evolution: Driving food policy by and for Northerners

Local food systems in the North have unique characteristics compared to other regions of Canada. Hunting, fishing and harvesting have traditionally been and continue to be strong pillars in Northern Indigenous and non-Indigenous food systems. Also, while in the past agricultural production in many parts of the North has been minimal, enthusiasm and activity in local food production, including farming, is on the rise. Still, imported foods make up the majority of food consumed in the North and the federal subsidy program Nutrition North (formerly Food Mail) was put in place to provide Northerners in isolated communities with improved access to perishable nutritious food.

Many actions across the North have awoken policy makers to the need for more emphasis on food at the local and regional level. In Nunavut, a Food Security Coalition was established through the Government of Nunavut’s poverty reduction strategy. The Coalition has a diverse membership including many government departments as well as organizations and businesses throughout the territory. In 2014, the Coalition produced the Nunavut Food Security Strategy and Action Plan 2014-2016. This strategy includes action areas relating to: country food and harvester support, availability and affordability of store bought foods and increased local food production (Nunavut Food Security Coalition, 2014). The Yukon government lacks policy relating directly to food security; however, it has been a strong advocate of increasing local food production, with its recently released Local Food Strategy for Yukon: Encouraging the Production and Consumption of Yukon-Grown Food 2016–2021. This strategy includes many initiatives such as providing low-cost leasing options for agricultural land, enhancing food safety systems, improving food access, building infrastructure to support community and backyard food production and processing, researching cold climate food production, and implementing food waste reduction programs (Government of Yukon, 2016).

The NWT also lacks a comprehensive strategy or policy to address food security; however, there have been many actions and some policies that address local food systems. In terms of harvesting, Indigenous governments, community organizations, and territorial government programs provide support and training for harvesters, and work towards co-management1 of wildlife and other resources critical to maintaining Indigenous food systems (GNWT, 2011a; GNWT, 2016). Local food production is a burgeoning policy area with the first Northwest Territories Agriculture Strategy soon to be tabled by the territorial government (GNWT, 2015). There has also been some support for food production through Growing Forward, the federally and territorially-funded agri-food investment program (Government of Canada, 2013). However, the majority of local food system action in the territory has come through civil society and community action. The Territorial Farmers Association was the driving force behind establishing the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) outside of Hay River, NWT. NFTI is “an experimental school to empower Northerners, strengthen our communities and create sustainability through local food production. We focus on economical, natural, integrated holistic food production systems” (NFTI, 2014). The Town of Hay River also produced the Hay River Strategy for Sustainable Agricultural Development in March 2014 (Serecon, 2014). The Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah Food System Assessment and Community Action Plan was commissioned by the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Public Health Association in 2010 and focused on the cost of living and healthy foods as factors causing food insecurity in Yellowknife (Lutra Associates Ltd., 2010). Other champions of sustainable food systems and local food policy have been the territorial NGO Ecology North, the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, and local farmers, harvesters and community garden groups across the territory. As Yellowknife is home to approximately half of the territories’ population, the integrated vision for a just and sustainable food system created through the Yellowknife Food Charter may have far reaching impacts throughout the NWT.

The Yellowknife Food Charter

What is a food charter?

Food charters have been used across North America to drive policy and community action for increasing food security, promoting healthy eating and sustainable agricultural practices. They are usually a set of principles that outline what a sustainable food system should look like in the context of the local area and help to increase cross-sector dialogue; address tough questions about where sustainability, equity, quality of life and the food system meet; increase public awareness and engagement; and influence policy decisions at a local level. Further, many charters have focused on promoting collaboration among government bodies, businesses, community organizations, and members of the public all along the food system. Food charters have mostly been used in urban settings, connecting cities with their local food system and promoting urban production (Hardam & Larkham, 2013). As a result, food charters have been part of a broader turn to include food within municipal and urban policy wheelhouses.

In Canada, food and agriculture has largely been a concern of federal and provincial/territorial policy, with municipalities having little jurisdictional authority. However, the consequences of food insecurity, poor health, and environmental degradation from unsustainable food production methods are keenly felt by local communities and their municipalities. As a result, many community stakeholders are working with their municipalities to embrace food policy strategies through a myriad of forms, such as food policy councils, endorsed food charters, community food assessments, and municipal food strategies or action plans (MacRae & Donahue, 2013; Runnels, 2012). Many Canadian cities and municipalities have embraced this tool, with food charters found across the country, from rural agricultural communities to large urban centres (MacRae & Donahue, 2013). The first food charter in Canada was created by the Toronto Food Policy Council, when the need was seen for the city to have a community-created document that set common ground for long term cross-sector dialogue and action that would bring about more just and sustainable policies and urban governance (MacRae & Donahue, 2013).

The Yellowknife Food Charter

The Yellowknife Food Charter was created through the YKFM to respond to the need for more cross-sector dialogue around food security in the city of Yellowknife, as well as to build on the food system actions that had already occurred in Yellowknife, the NWT, and the North. Influenced by the good work the community had already done on food issues, but seeing the need to create space for integrated solution-building, the Charter provides a document to help guide a diverse set of actors within the Yellowknife food system to align their work with others and find synergy for collective action based on shared vision and principles for a just and sustainable food system.

A just and sustainable food system in Yellowknife is rooted in a healthy community, where everyone has access to adequate and affordable nutritious food; more food is grown and harvested locally; and food production policies and infrastructure are in place to support an economically viable, diverse, and ecologically sustainable local food system.PrinciplesA just and sustainable food system in Yellowknife means:

  • The human right to safe and secure access to adequate food is honoured and everyone is food secure.
  • Everyone has access to knowledge about a just and sustainable food system.
  • Equitable, healthy relationships exist among all people in the food system.
  • Food based entrepreneurial initiatives are essential to sustainable local economies.
  • The benefits of local food based economic development are celebrated and leveraged.
  • Food producers, harvesters, and entrepreneurs generate value from their work and use ecologically sustainable practices.
  • Indigenous and traditional practices are respected and supported.
  • Community members have confidence in the quality, safety, supply, and distribution of food.
  • Public policy and infrastructure reflect these principles of a just and sustainable food system.
  • Improved access to nutritious foods leads to better health outcomes.

(Yellowknife Farmers Market, 2015)

The Yellowknife Food Charter provides a platform for people interested in building on the great work going on in the community; it also breaks down silos so the community can work together towards a common goal of increased food security and a just and sustainable food system.

Collaborative action and bringing actors together is part of the Charter’s focus on a food systems approach. Championed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), a food systems approach “gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes” (UNEP, 2016). It gathers these elements in recognition that they are all part of a single system in which actions in one area will affect the system as a whole. Integrated solutions towards a common goal are possible when there is collaboration within the system. As YKFM states (Yellowknife Farmers Market, 2015):

“Developing a just and sustainable food system is possible with support and collaboration from individuals, community groups, the business community, and all levels of government who believe that strengthening local food-based businesses will bring improvements to our overall food security. Our efforts are strengthened when we come together under one network that allows us to work together on food security… The Yellowknife Food Charter is a point of entry for groups and individuals to gather, generate ideas, and identify how to collectively respond and create projects that increase food security for all Yellowknifers.”

Through the food systems approach, the Charter is built on the understanding that at the apex of improving social justice within the food system, ensuring environmental sustainability and strengthening the economy of the hunters, fishers, gatherers and growers, we can improve food security and contribute positively to the overall quality of life for the people in Yellowknife and the NWT. It is also understood that the best way to reach these synergies is through participation and collaboration among as many food system participants as possible. Further, because food is central to any functioning society a food system approach is critical to decision making in a community. As a result, the Yellowknife Food Charter creates a mandate to help community actors and decision makers work together to collectively find synergies within the food system to make it more just and sustainable.

In 2014, the YKFM facilitated a community writing process for the Yellowknife Food Charter and then took it to the City of Yellowknife where it was officially endorsed in July 2015. Since then, the Charter has been used to drive action within the community. During the fall of 2015, the YKFM used the Food Charter during the municipal, territorial and federal elections to remind the public and candidates about the importance of food and to raise awareness about food security for all Yellowknifers. The YKFM food security team called candidates and visited businesses, organizations and individuals to talk to them about the Charter and food insecurity in Yellowknife. In January 2016, the Charter was officially launched to the Yellowknife community with a giant celebration of food and community spirit. Over 125 Yellowknifers from all over the food system enjoyed locally-made food, listened to live music, and signed on to the Yellowknife Food Charter.

After this strong showing of public support, the Food Charter Coalition was created to organize and drive actions towards improved food security under the Charter. The Coalition includes members from the City of Yellowknife, GWNT and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, local businesses and community organizations, farmers and harvesters, health practitioners, other members of the public all along the food system and is always continuing to build its membership. The Coalition started their work by setting up a structured plan that included short, medium and long term goals for its work, including education evenings, and continued outreach. Developing and launching the Food Charter as well as the continued work of the Coalition would not have been possible without the financial support from the Artic Institute for Community Based Research and the Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT) Anti-Poverty Fund.

In 2016, the Coalition and Ecology North became partners of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant through Wilfrid Laurier University known as FLEdGE – Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged. FLEdGE is committed to fostering food systems that are socially just, ecologically regenerative, economically localized and that engage citizens. As part of this grant, the Coalition and Ecology North became part of a network of food researchers and organizations across Canada. It was through this network that Carleton University MA candidate Carla Johnston became involved in the summer of 2016, as a research assistant with FLEdGE for this partnership. She was given a warm Northern welcome as she was taught how to stretch a moose hide as soon as she got off the plane!

Through this partnership, Carla, Tracey Williams, the YKFM Food Security Coordinator, and France Benoit, YKFM president worked together over the summer to talk with community members about their common concerns in the local food system and their ideas for improving it. This work was brought together and presented to the City of Yellowknife council in late August, when council members were invited to be members of the Coalition. The presentation was successful as a member of the council joined the Coalition shortly afterwards.

As part of their outreach and education goals, the Coalition hosted a learning evening in October 2016 as a fun and informative way to bring together different actors in the food system to talk about their role and how to work together. With standing-room-only at the venue, the discussants talked about decolonizing consumption, organics recycling, food waste rescue, restoration agriculture and food as medicine, among other topics.

The Coalition continues to partner with FLEdGE and Carla by conducting a policy analysis of existing and alternative food policy options that could be part of an urban food strategy for the City of Yellowknife. In this analysis, the Charter is being used to aid in thinking about new policy frameworks that support the interest of Northerners, such as diversification of the economy, job creation and skill acquisition in areas that protect and allow the local food system to flourish into the future. Further, that these policies should build on the past policies of the City of Yellowknife and the GNWT in supporting traditional economic activities and cultural connections to the land as well as responding to the growing interest in increasing the availability of locally grown or harvested, nutritious and healthy foods, medicines and value-added products. Also part of this analysis, community members are being asked what policy supports they would like to see in a strategy that would ensure integration and collaboration across the food system.

Where will collaboration and participation take the Charter in the future? The Coalition is working to stay “light on its feet” and will continue to communicate the vision and principles of the Yellowknife Food Charter to the community. The Food Charter is a fixed document for the Yellowknife community; however, how its vision and principles are realized is not set in stone. This leaves room for the community to remain fluid and dynamic in its approach to suit its needs within the current context. In this way, the Charter can continue to meet the unique needs of Yellowknife as a Northern community, while still striving for the cross-sector dialogue and collaboration that food charters have been instrumental in achieving across North America. The Coalition will learn from and evaluate its work in an effort to understand how to coordinate this complex and long-term approach to increase food security through a just and sustainable food system for all Yellowknifers. ◉

Carla Johnston is a graduate student at Carleton Univeristy now living in Yellowknife. Tracey Williams is Food Security Coordinator for the Yellowknife Farmers Market.


1 The co-management of wildlife in the NWT and the North has been a highly-contested process (Nadasdy, 2003). Indigenous leaders in Yellowknife and across the NWT have argued that there has been mismanagement of caribou herds by the territorial government (Sarkadi, 2015).


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