Farming for the future: Cree potato project keeps traditional knowledge alive

Decades ago, Chisasibi residents harvested potatoes at a farm on Fort George Island. Now, the potato farm is back: the centrepiece of a project aimed at preserving food security and local knowledge.

Farm project looks at 'past, present and future' of food in Chisasibi

A pilot project in the summer 2018 yielded 85 potatoes and several green onions. Plans are underway to expand for the summer of 2019. (Submitted by Bertie Wapachee)

The taste of a Chisasibi-grown potato is something Andrew Rupert remembers well.

Rupert, 70, worked as a young man in the mid 1960s and early 1970s at a farm located on Fort George Island, in the James Bay region of Quebec.

"Some of them were bigger than the fist of a man," said Rupert, whose mother would boil them with the skins on and mix them with lard.

"They tasted very good."

It's a taste Rupert and others are hoping comes back to this community of approximately 5,000, located 1,400 kilometres north of Montreal on the shore of the La Grande river.

For the past few years, a project to preserve traditional food knowledge, address food insecurity issues and revive an almost forgotten agricultural history has been gaining momentum.

Gabriel Snowboy is the greenhouse coordinator at the Chisasibi Business Service Centre. (Submitted by Bertie Wapachee)

Last summer, two small fields were planted on Fort George Island, with the help of Gabriel Snowboy, the greenhouse co-ordinator at the Chisasibi Business Service Centre.

"We were able to grow a pretty good amount of potatoes in a short amount of time," said Snowboy, who worked with some summer students to tend the fields and harvest around 85 potatoes and several green onions.

Statistics gathered by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay in 2016 showed that the cost of a basic food basket was 40 per cent more expensive in Eeyou Istchee than in Montreal.

This coming summer, the plan is to plant a much larger field of potatoes: 18 metres by 18 metres. 

Past, present and future

The project is part of a multi-year collaboration between the Chisasibi Business Service Centre, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), administered through the CEGEP de Victoriaville, through its Centre d'Innovation Sociale en Agriculture (CISA). 

The work currently underway in Chisasibi looks at the "past, present and future" of food in the community, according to Emilie Parent, a PhD student and research assistant at the CEGEP de Victoriaville.

The Fort George farm is one of many projects centered on food security underway in the James Bay community. Another is a greenhouse training program organized through the local school. (James Bay Eeyou School, Chisasibi )

"We really try to make this research collaborative," said Parent, adding elders were interviewed on film about food habits on Fort George Island, the traditional meeting grounds of the Chisasibi Cree people.

The community was forced to move to present day Chisasibi by hydroelectric development, which was built in the 1970s.

The elders, like Andrew Rupert, were asked about Cree food traditions and traditional food knowledge. The information from these interviews will be preserved for the community in a database, says Parent.

They were also asked about their memories of the Fort George Island farm.

Andrew Rupert, who worked as a carpenter, tractor driver and field labourer had many memories.

Andrew Rupert, in cap, picks rhubarb as a young man. Rupert worked as a carpenter, tractor driver and field labourer at the Fort George Island farm in the late 1960s and 1970s. (Dr. Charles Dumont/Chisasibi Heritage & Cultural Centre/ ᒋᓵᓰᐲ ᐄᔨᔨᐅᑭᒥᒄ)

"I liked the work, driving the tractor. I liked being close to the earth," said Rupert. "Sometimes they let me walk the fields to check the bad seeds [weeds]."   

The exact dates of the farm's operation aren't precisely known, but Snowboy and Parent say it operated from the 1920's through the 1970's, run by one of the two residential schools located on the island.

It grew mostly potatoes, but also rhubarb, tomatoes, cabbages, turnips, carrots, celery, lettuce, radishes, gooseberries, strawberries and cucumbers and even for a time, raised livestock like pigs and cows.

It was those interviews that led to efforts to revive the agricultural traditions.

"We realized what people really wanted was to create some fields for vegetables," said Parent. "We decided to go on Fort George Island because it is still in the hearts of the people."

The harvest from the pilot project, as well as the harvest from a greenhouse being run at the local high school, were shared with community during a harvest festival in late September.

Elders like Rupert and others are volunteering with the project to pass on their agricultural know-how to a new generation of Cree.

"It's something good for the community," said Rupert.

"I just wanted to give them what I know, to pass it onto the younger people."