Sustainable solution provides fresh produce to North Caribou Lake First Nation

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 George Wood,  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.”

Director of Public Health Education Wendy Trylinski 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.”



NAN has a seven pillar strategy for reclaiming their right to food self determination.

North Caribou Lake First Nation is part of the announced State of Health and Public Health Emergency declared by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) in February 2016.

NAN is a political territorial organization representing 49 First Nation Communities located across the whole of northern Ontario.  25 of these communities are accessible by air only.

The Ontario Government responded to the crisis in May 2016 with the First Nations Action Plan. It’s a $222 million commitment to support Indigenous health care, medical infrastructure, expanding access to fresh fruits and vegetables for children, and prevention programs.

FoodSecure Canada released their report “Paying for Nutrition: a report on food costing in the North” in September 2016 and calls on the federal and provincial governments to make access to nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate food a basic human right in Canada.