Vegetable gardening may be making a comeback in the Northern Quebec Cree community of Chisasibi, where ambitious greenhouse projects are aiming to improve access to healthy, affordable food and get the community back in touch with a little-remembered farming tradition. 

One such project is the James Bay Eeyou School [JBES] Greenhouse, which was launched last year by the local high school as a way to teach students about gardening, health and food security in the North. 

"The supply of fresh and affordable food is very low for what the population here needs," said Matthew Marentette, a math teacher at JBES and one of the coordinators of the project. "It's just not affordable. So what do people end up eating? They end up eating food that's cheaper, but much lower quality." 

A survey done in 2016 by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay found the cost of 71 basic nutritious food items was 30 per cent more expensive in Eeyou Istchee than in non-Cree communities of the region, and 40 per cent more expensive than in Montreal.

The survey also found access to some basic nutritious foods was limited in some Cree communities, although improving. Food insecurity is linked to all kinds of health issues, including higher rates of diabetes. 

The JBES students planted tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, peas, green peppers and beets and other vegetables with the help of horticultural students from McGill University, who spent 3 weeks holding training workshops. Over the summer months, three local students were hired to care for the plants, including 15-year-old Christina Pechanos. 

JBES greenhouse

The interior of the greenhouse at James Bay Eeyou School. The students planted vegetables with the help of horticultural students from McGill University. (James Bay Eeyou School)

"They trained me in how to cut the plants, how to take care of them, how to water them, how to measure the pH levels," said Pechanos. "Before I worked at the greenhouse I didn't like living in Chisasibi, [but] I really liked taking care of the plants. It won't be that bad to work in Chisasibi."

The program will continue to grow some produce in the winter months, utilizing some space in the school's classrooms.

Plans for year-round greenhouse

The JBES Greenhouse was supported by the Cree School Board, the local band office and the Chisasibi Business Service Centre. The service centre has big plans to build a year-round commercial greenhouse, something that is a challenge now because of the high heating costs associated with prolonging the short growing season. 

"For years, people have been talking about wasting food and fruits and vegetables that rot on their way to Chisasibi," said Gabriel Snowboy, the Greenhouse Coordinator at the Chisasibi Business Service Centre. "This is something we can do to change that and people are realizing that we can grow different kind of produce. It is possible to have a greenhouse."

Snowboy says the service centre is currently researching ways to offset the heating costs associated with a Northern greenhouse, including solar panels and thermal energy. They hope to address local food needs first, but also to one day sell Chisasibi-grown vegetables to other communities.

Fort George Farm

The Fort George farm ran from the 1950s through the 1970s on nearby Fort George Island, before the community was forced to relocated due to hydro development. The Chisasibi Business Service Centre is collecting memories of the farm: 'that history is not really found anywhere.' (Archives Deschatelets/Chisasibi Heritage and Cultural Centre)

Snowboy says a commercial greenhouse would also reconnect the community with its agricultural roots. He is collecting memories of a farm that operated from the 1950s through the 1970s on Fort George Island. The island is the site of the original Cree community, which was forced to relocate in 1970 because of hydro development. 

"What we want to know, when people talk about Fort George farm and how they had the vegetables and had cows and chickens," said Snowboy. "That history is not really found anywhere. That's why we hope to achieve, to have some history from that era when farming was done in Fort George."

With files from Stefon Rabbitskin