Muskeg Lake Cree Nation community food forest helps connections, knowledge grow
Community forest on Saskatchewan First Nation provides connections along with food security
Gardeners behind a "food forest" on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan held a grand opening this summer, and are now hoping the space will also help grow a sense of engagement and teach traditional Indigenous knowledge.
"Hundreds of years ago, our people were great with working with plants, medicines, natural herbs," Muskeg Lake council member Cal Arcand said. "So it's really nice to see a very good teaching tool that we can use in our community,"
The food forest program — which involves a self-sustaining garden that community members are invited to harvest — started around 2018 after Steven Wiig, a permaculturist, made a presentation in the community and leaders got involved.
"One of the bigger parts, and what attracted the band, is that it's also like a community space," said Wiig.
"It's not an orchard.… We're developing it to be completely like a park. So if we engage the community, then the goal is that they become engaged in food security."
Glenna Cayen with the charity Canadian Feed the Children helped secure the land on Muskeg Lake, about 100 kilometres north of Saskatoon, for the project and hired Wiig as the food security supervisor.
Work on the project began on the bare farm land in the fall of 2018, when people from the Cree Nation and neighbouring towns planted 300 trees.
"After the first year, it kind of looked just like a big field with a bunch of little sticks coming out of it. But as we've added mulch and added these different amenities to the site, it's really starting to take shape," Wiig said.
After years of work and planting, the food forest has more than 400 trees and shrubs — most of which are food-producing — along with berry bushes, a garden, a gazebo and an outdoor kitchen with solar power. It is starting to see layers of growth.
The goal is to maximize food production. The forest is already home to five apple varieties, cherry varieties, saskatoon berries, grapes, gooseberry currants, raspberries and rhubarb, among others — just about every fruit that could possibly be grown in Saskatchewan, Wiig said.
"It is a new concept. If you talk about food security, people expect a big field of potatoes or something like that, which we are incorporating," he said.
Vegetables are being grown at the site for the time being, since the trees aren't yet big enough to shade everything.
The First Nation held a grand opening for the food forest on July 30, which Wiig says was an opportunity to invite the community in to see the space. A "homecoming" celebration event was held on Aug. 21, with nearby Hutterite communities invited to join Muskeg Lake community members at the site.
Long-term success will be measured by food security and whether the community feels a part of the project, Feed the Children's Cayen said.
That's already started through distributing some of the produce through Meals on Wheels, a community food-delivery program.
"We're giving them fresh produce right now even to go to the elders and [the] school.… We plan to supplement their lunches with the produce from the gardens."
In the future, Wiig would like to see community members producing value-added items that can be sold — for example, selling apple pies and jams made from fruit grown on the site, which is "right on the way up to lake country," he notes.
"So there's a lot of opportunity there to sell some of the produce and create a local economy."
More food forest projects
Based on the successful pilot at Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Canadian Feed The Children applied for grants through TD Bank and got funding to expand, Cayen said.
Three other First Nations — Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation and Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation in Saskatchewan, and Atikameg First Nation in Alberta — are now starting their own food forests.
Coun. Arcand said Muskeg Lake's forest provides opportunities to teach the next generation about the Indigenous connection to the Earth.
"When we look at some of the trees in our community culturally, what makes that tree stand up? It's the strong roots. It's the nourishment that you put in there. And it's the same thing with your family tree," he said.
The forest is one step on the path to food sovereignty — the ability to independently grow or source food — for the First Nation, Arcand said.
"It's still in growing stages three years in. But you can visualize the beauty that it's going to bring for years to come."
With files from Blue Sky