Feeding the spirit of First Nations students

From moose stew to buffalo sausage, a new program is giving students at six Cree schools in Alberta a taste of their culture and traditions

Koreen Thunder
Koreen Thunder, a cook at the Lubicon Lake Band cultural camp for high school students, marinates moose steak that will be served for dinner. Ariel Fournier/CBC

It’s a sunny June day and the camp kitchen is humming with the thump of bannock being kneaded and the aroma of moose heart and tongue stew filling the air.

Soon, dozens of high school students are lined up, eager to dig into a hot lunch after their morning classes — classes that, on this day, included a lesson on skinning and butchering a bear that had been killed the night before by camp instructors.

This meal is part of Alberta’s only wild game school food program. It started in 2019 as a pilot project in the six north-central First Nations schools operated by the Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council Education Authority.

The program brings locally hunted, traditionally prepared food to students, providing them with healthy, fresh meals and snacks. It also gives them an understanding about the benefits of embracing their cultural traditions — ranging from saving money to becoming less reliant on grocery stores.

Moose steaks sizzle in a pan. A new school meal plan program at six Alberta First Nations schools includes wild game. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)
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On this day, wild game is part of the meal plan offered at the Lubicon Lake Band’s Mihkowapikwaniy cultural camp, located about 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, where students from nearby First Nations are also learning about food traditions like smoking and drying meat and gathering medicines from the land.

And this fall, the program will become a permanent fixture at the schools, which means traditional foods will be incorporated into the two meals and snack available to students each day.

“I wanted to make a change in the community,” says Clifford Gladue, food services manager for the education authority and the driving force behind the traditional foods program. “I wanted to bring in more healthy options for our students.”

Standing under a canopy next to the camp’s outdoor kitchen, Gladue says the meal about to be enjoyed is a far cry from those of his youth.

“All I had in school was processed foods,” he says. “I’m not blaming anyone, but processed foods have so many chemicals and so much [other] stuff in it.”

Eventually, Gladue was diagnosed with diabetes — a chronic disease prevalent among Indigenous people in Canada.

Clifford Gladue
Clifford Gladue, food services manager for Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council Education Authority (KTCEA), is the driving force behind the wild game meal plan. He even took training to become a federal food inspector to help surmount some of the roadblocks. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

Reclaiming health and culture

The disproportionately higher rate of Type 2 diabetes among Indigenous people is well-documented and is attributed to a number of social and economic factors, including the routine malnourishment of students at residential schools. The legacy of this systemic lack of nutrition has been extensively researched by studying those former students, with conclusions helping inform the design of Canada’s Food Guide.

Gladue’s food program is about promoting health and reclaiming culture. According to Indigenous Services Canada, it’s a unique initiative in Canada and the first of its kind in Alberta.

It’s thanks to the program that Gladue’s daughter ate moose meat for the first time.

“I want my kids to know where they come from,” Gladue says.

“And I want my kids to know how my grandparents lived off the land.”

deer in field
Deer caught by local hunters are inspected and certified to be served at First Nations schools in northern Alberta. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

When Gladue became Kee Tas Kee Now’s food services manager, he set a goal to redesign the meal plans for the 1,100 or so students from five north-central Alberta Cree First Nations — Loon River, Woodland Cree, Lubicon Lake Band, Whitefish Lake and Peerless Trout.

The idea grew out of a meeting with an elder, during which Gladue first learned about the Alberta First Nations Food Sovereignty Declaration, written in 2017 by a working group of Indigenous experts.

The document recommends strategies to bring more traditional foods to communities, in keeping with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“We’ve slowly been losing that sustainability and that food security, as we’ve been colonized and westernized,” says Jason Bigcharles, a land-based education teacher for Kee Tas Kee Now.

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Jason Bigcharles, left, demonstrates how to skin and butcher a black bear as students watch the process for the first time and learn about the traditional Indigenous significance of the bear.
Bigcharles speaks to students a bear he hunted the night before is skinned and butchered.
Cliff Aubichon stokes the flames of the smoker to dry bison meat that’s been prepared using traditional and contemporary techniques.
Students learn how to make sausages with meat from a bison that had been butchered at the camp.
images expandHunting, preparing and consuming wild game is the unique feature of a meal program at six schools for Cree children in north-central Alberta. Here are some images from a school division cultural camp, attended by students from Alberta's Lubicon Lake Band.

It was Bigcharles who had earlier demonstrated the art of bear skinning and butchering to camp students.

“We’re trying to instil it in our new generation that we can go back to where we’re not relying on the grocery store because we have everything we need out there.”

For Bigcharles, offering regular meals of traditional foods is another way for the students to appreciate the value of what they are already learning in the classroom.

He savours the satisfaction he sees among students after they gather edible plants — saskatoon buds, dandelion stems, sprouting clover, sprouting plantain — and then eat their spoils by the handful.

“It really hit home for them that, ‘Wow, I can go in my backyard right now and make a salad,’” he says.

An arduous journey from dream to reality

Wild game students lunch
High school students at a cultural camp on Lubicon Lake load their dinner plates with moose steak, bannock and vegetables. ( Ariel Fournier/CBC)

For this evening’s dinner at the camp, the cooks prepare skirt steaks from a moose hunted last season.

Grade 12 student Jaleel Whitehead loads his plate. Moose meat is a staple in his own home — and it’s one of his favourite dishes.

“When you eat that food and you acknowledge the fact that our ancestors used to live off this food, it’s just that much better,” says the 17-year-old, a student at the Lubicon Lake Band’s Little Buffalo School.

That acknowledgement is Gladue’s reward for putting in so many long hours, and facing the obstacles he encountered along the way, to get traditional foods into schools.

In 2018, Gladue’s first decision was to eliminate most processed foods from meals, bringing in real cheese instead of Cheez Whiz and getting rid of items like reheated chicken fingers.

Students eat breakfast, lunch and a snack at school, so it was important to him that nutrition be a top priority.

He had to overhaul school meal plans, then work closely with school chefs to determine what could realistically be served to students.

To get fresh food to multiple remote communities, Gladue hired drivers to bring food supplies from Edmonton each week. He helped train chefs to make bread and sausages from scratch.

Following that, he wanted to introduce locally hunted wild game that had been traditionally prepared. That idea was embraced by the kitchen staff, many of whom had learned to hunt and make this food alongside their grandparents.

“All the cooks were on board, because they already knew how to cook traditional foods, so in a way, too, they taught me the traditional ways,” Gladue says.

Gladue wild meat project
Food services manager Gladue and cook Kandace Halcrow consult over moose stew. (Ariel Fournier)
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But government officials who had to approve the plan needed a little more convincing.

Gladue consulted with dieticians and elders, then spent nine months negotiating with health inspectors, Indigenous Services Canada, Alberta Fish and Wildlife and other provincial and federal officials.

It was important to him that the wild game was caught by local hunters, but sending meat samples for federal inspection and approval would have caused insurmountable delays of up to six months.

So, Gladue took the training to become a health inspector, which opened the door for wild game to finally make it onto school plates.

Through the pilot, students have enjoyed lunches that include wild duck, moose, bison and elk. Next on Gladue’s list is a plan to add locally harvested plants and vegetables to the menus of Kee Tas Kee Now schools.

kids eating in class
Students enjoy a meal of traditional foods, including wild game, at one of the KTCEA schools. (Supplied by KTCEA)

For the five First Nations involved in the pilot, the food program is an extension of principles the kids are learning at home and at school.

“Traditional foods is really key for us,” says Chief Ivan Sawan of Loon River First Nation. “It brings health to our communities, to our children, to our bodies.”

Gladue has spoken to other First Nations school districts and boards who would like to bring in similar plans.

The Maskwacis Education Schools Commission, which oversees 11 schools in four First Nations communities south of Edmonton, is looking to adopt this model for meal plans in the fall.

Gladue takes it all in with a sense of satisfaction. “We are leading the way to bring all this back.”

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