Melaine Simba & Andrew Spring
Kakisa is a community so small, it’s often not included on maps of the Northwest Territories. And for the most part, members of the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation (KTFN) prefer it that way. The community is peaceful, quiet and the people here continue to enjoy a close relationship to the lands, waters and animals that surround them. In Ka’a’gee Tu, meaning “between the willows” in South Slavey, the health of the land and the health of the people are connected. However, in recent years, community members have noticed changes to their environment due to the impact of climate change. There is a growing concern in the community that their main food sources – the fish, animals and berries harvested from the land – are at risk. The community wants to ensure access to food for future generations, and so they reached out to other organizations to help.
In 2014, the KTFN partnered with Wilfrid Laurier University and Ecology North, a territorial non-profit organization, to conduct a climate change and food security action plan for the community. This project sought to collect insights and experiences about the changes to the land, water and animals community members have witnessed over the past years. Most importantly, the project encouraged community members to identify ways they could become more self-sufficient and food secure in the future. Community members spoke about creating more opportunities to educate youth on the land and transfer traditional skills to the next generation of harvesters, and about the importance of research and monitoring the health of the land. One project the community identified was gardening and growing their own food.
In Kakisa, the community sees growing food as a part of the solution to food security in the community. The community wants to continue to rely on fish, moose and other traditional foods, but realizes that they will continue to need some food from the store to support their diets. The issue is that the nearest store is located roughly 100 km away in the community of Hay River, and the food there is expensive. Growing their own food would limit the amount of time they would need to travel to the store as well as the quantity they would need to buy there. Plus, by growing food they would have access to fresher and healthier foods.
Growing food in Indigenous communities in the North is an interesting topic. Some often question the appropriateness of agriculture as a solution in communities that have little to no background in growing food. Agriculture is a solution that non-Dene often bring into communities, with little involvement of locals. There is a legacy in many communities of gardens that have been planted by well-intentioned individuals from outside the community – gardens that never produced food because little education and support was provided to the community, and without community buy-in, no one took care of the garden. Nonetheless, growing food remains a potential solution that communities are interested in pursuing to meet their food needs, particularly with increasing costs of food and fuel.
Kakisa has had an interesting experience with gardening; in fact, there is a history of growing food in the community. In the 1970s Philip Simba, a past Chief, was taught how to garden, and for years he grew cabbages, carrots, potatoes and strawberries by the riverbank. Many community members fondly remembered enjoying those strawberries in their youth. But after his passing, no one took over and the garden disappeared. In the 1990s a few different gardens came and went. A large garden, where the current band office is located, was started by a teacher and grew all types of vegetables for the community. But the garden stopped when the teacher left. Other gardens, including ones build by government assistance or through non-profit organizations, have come and gone as well. Sometimes they offered training and support, other times they did not. But the community is driven to make it work this time around, and are mindful of what has happened in the past.
The need for a community champion, a person who has been instrumental in past gardens, is often considered critical. Someone who takes on the responsibility of growing food and making it their passion can be important in making a garden work. But what happens when that person moves away? Or, as is often the case in small communities, demands for time for meetings and other initiatives can burn these champions out. The way that Kakisa is growing a garden is by involving the whole community as well as by accepting help from partners outside of the community.
The community’s recent experience with growing food started in 2015 when two garden boxes were set up in the community. Provided through territorial funding, soil and boxes were delivered to the community in late June 2015. A few fast-growing vegetables were planted, and a small amount of food was grown. The next year, four more garden boxes were installed, and land was cleared at the back of the community to make room to grow potatoes. The Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI), located near Hay River, came and provided tools, supplies and training to the community.
The KTFN are also partners in a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant through Wilfrid Laurier University known as FLEdGE – Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged. The grant provided funding to pay for the training and cost of gardening supplies. Planting the garden proved to be a very popular event in the community. Children from the school came out to help, as did some parents and Elders. In all, approximately 20 people, nearly half the community, turned out to take part in planting. In fact, the planting experience was captured on video in hopes of providing a how-to demonstration for other communities in the North. The potatoes grown last year were a hit and were shared throughout the community.
So, now that the community has had two successful seasons of growing food, they are willing to take on more of the responsibility in organizing the gardens and are even looking to expand the gardens to grow more foods. It will take everyone to contribute – to plant, water and weed – and in the end, everyone shares the harvest. Many people are willing to help. The success of the gardens will depend on how well the community works together and, if help is needed, their connections to other groups will make sure that support is always nearby. ◉
Melaine Simba is Environmental Coordinator with Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation in Kakisa, NT. Andrew Spring is a doctoral candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems in Waterloo, ON.