'Everybody's a teacher' and a student: Northern Sask. food centre helps feed community, celebrate tradition

Two women who have poured their hearts into a Community Food Centre at Turner Lake and Birch Narrows Dene Nation says it's a unique service in the north.

Programs see elders share traditional knowledge with rest of community

A community food centre in Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Dene Nation is bringing people of all ages together to learn about food, culture and traditions. During one of its recent programs, elders and youth were among those who came out to carve donated moose meat. (Submitted by Rebecca Sylvestre)

From the outside, a community hub near the end of northern Saskatchewan roads looks like it's only a faded, white building in need of renovations.  

But two women who have poured their hearts into the Community Food Centre at Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Dene Nation — about 450 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon — describe the centre as so much more than just a building.

"I had programs in the past — this is very different," said program manager Rebecca Sylvestre.

"I don't know what's different about it. Something about this is reaching everybody."

A youth centre that had been underused has been converted into a Community Food Centre for Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows. (Submitted by Rebecca Sylvestre)

The centre has been getting off the ground for the last few months, and provides food to those in need. But it also offers programming that's open to everyone, whether it's baking classes for parents and kids, or lessons in gardening.

This week, the centre's partners are coming together for a community feast and celebration of its launch.

"Now that I've been experiencing it, I can tell you the magic works," said Helene Hebert, who also sits on the board of directors.

Hebert is from Quebec City, but her husband is an RCMP officer who's been stationed in the northern community.

Since the centre began offering workshops and activities, she said she's seen how people have embraced the connection to each other, and their shared history.

Helene Hebert, who sits on the board for the Community Food Centre, helps young children in the community plant seeds for a garden. (Submitted by Helene Hebert)

One program saw hunters bring in six moose to butcher and distribute. Dozens of people packed in to help carve the meat, with Hebert's own three-year-old daughter watching with wide-eyed wonder.

The elders came with their tools and wealth of knowledge and traditions, while dozens of kids trooped in from the school, ready to learn.

"It really brings people together," Hebert said of the programming. "It's like suddenly everybody's a teacher and everybody's a student and a volunteer at the same time."

Access to food hard in the north

Sylvestre said she had long dreamed of having something like the centre in her community, particularly because she could see through her day job in social outreach how much it was needed.

"As a protection worker, you do your very best to make sure a family can keep their children at home," she said.

But one of the biggest hurdles to keeping families on social assistance together was their access to food, she said.

"We have so many bills to pay up in the north here, and our food is expensive. To drive three and a half hours away, it was hard for them. A lot of times they were coming to me."

Rebecca Sylvestre works with a knife while a youngster works with a plastic knife, both helping with the meat carving at the Community Food Centre. (Submitted by Helene Hebert)

As she kept turning that problem over in her mind, she came across the Community Food Centres of Canada through a Google search and emailed them to ask for help.

She was surprised to receive an email back just two weeks later, saying, "We're very interested in helping you. This will be one of a kind in Saskatchewan."

That would be the start of a tide of partners flooding in, all eager to help establish the food centre in the north with donations that have totalled $100,000, according to Hebert.

True North Aid is also providing a trailer worth of goods like household supplies, mitts and clothing.

The group was able to turn an underused youth centre in the hamlet into the food centre, while a local construction company also offered to help provide services.

For Sylvestre, it's gratifying to see her long-cherished vision slowly come to life.

Other northern communities are now looking to Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows' food centre as a model, to see if they can introduce something similar.

Sylvestre believes it can happen.

"When it's off the ground and running and it's running smoothly, I want to be out there teaching people how I started —and how we can get them started."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.