Thunder Bay

Greater food sovereignty aim of new garden project in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation

Inspired by the pandemic, in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, people are launching a new garden initiative that they hope will have long-lasting impacts on health and food sovereignty.

Garden initiative part of 'going back home to the land,' says John Cutfeet

From unused lumber to old containers and even sinks, any available materials he could find were being repurposed last summer to grow plants, said John Cutfeet. (John Cutfeet)

As the pandemic set in last spring, John Cutfeet watched as life begin to change in his remote northern Ontario community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI).

Amid lockdown measures, travel restrictions and fears of how the First Nation would fare if the virus got in, he was reminded of the words of his late grandmother. 

"One of the things she always talked about was if something happens out there, meaning out in the cities and towns, she would always say that we would be able to continue on for a while longer because we would have access to all the resources that were around us — the waters, the fish, the animals and the land," he said.

With those words in mind, Cutfeet got to work. He began collecting boards to make raised beds, and anything else he could find that would hold soil.

Potatoes harvested last year in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, in Ontario's far north. (John Cutfeet)

"We were able to grow some potatoes last year," he said. 

Big plans for this summer

Encouraged by last summer's effort, this year, Cutfeet is working with other community members to launch a garden initiative that he hopes will have positive impacts on the community's health and food sovereignty. 

The plan is to revitalize a former community garden from a few years back he said, along with a second plot, and to grow as much as they can, focusing on root vegetables best-suited to the region's short, growing season.  

The more healthy food they can harvest on their own, Cutfeet explained, the less they need to rely on outside food systems, especially during an uncertain time. 

"Because we don't know just what will happen with COVID-19, and now the variants … that we're hearing are coming into play throughout the globe. So we're doing what we can to be able to find ways to support ourselves in food production, to be able to control the food production as best we can," he said, adding that harvesting other traditional foods like fish, caribou and moose is also an important part of that food sovereignty. 

Cutfeet said he also hopes that Elders will play an important role in the garden effort. He said they plan to situate a new gathering space for elders near the garden, opening up opportunities for them to take part and share their traditional knowledge of how to grow plants. 

More remote communities reclaiming food systems

Projects like the one being launched in KI are wonderful to hear about, said Jessica McLaughlin, co-lead for the Northern Ontario Indigenous Food Sovereignty Collaborative, a community-led initiative that supports Indigenous communities in creating and strengthening their own food systems. 

McLaughlin said she's hearing of more and more communities starting similar initiatives, aimed at revitalizing their own food systems. 

"I think it's wonderful when communities are doing that and looking with different options that don't necessarily align with the supply chain or the capitalistic market," she said.

And while access to quality, affordable food has been a longstanding issue in remote First Nations, she said the pandemic has also strengthened the desire to become less dependent on outside supply chains. 

"So I think gardening projects are on the rise in communities," she said, adding that people are also finding ways to add value to those projects by tying them into community programming that brings people together.

"So it's been really cool," she said. 

With snow still on the ground in KI, it will be some time still before the community can get planting, but work is underway to prepare for the upcoming season, including soil sampling, Cutfeet explained.

Despite the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, he said working on the garden project has been a bright spot.

"It's like a lightbulb went off," he said, when the pandemic began drawing regular life to a halt. "It's like a pause in the way things were going, but a great opportunity … to be able to do things differently," he said. 

"And it's going back home to the land is the way I look at it, because the land is there and the land will provide."

When the pandemic struck, a lot of people turned to gardening for comfort and recreation. For some, it was also about food security and food sovereignty. That was the case in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation. Amy Hadley spoke with John Cutfeet about their new community garden initiative. 9:10