“The food forest is something tangible that the community’s future leaders can take over after we’re gone. They’ll remember that they planted that tree and why.”Alfred Gamble, Lands Manager, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation
Bringing together Indigenous approaches to agriculture, innovative permaculture design, community involvement, and technical and financial support from Canadian Feed The Children and its donors, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation has planted a 2.5-acre food forest to raise awareness about food sovereignty and increase food security in their community.
In mid-2017, Glenna Cayen stepped into her role as CFTC’s Community Program Coordinator. Passionate about land sustainability and water resource management, she began consulting with her community about what they wanted to see happen to increase their access to nutritious, affordable food. Around kitchen tables and in more formal gatherings, Glenna listened to her fellow Muskeg Lake residents’ hopes and dreams for a food-secure future.
Increasing access to fresh fruit and produce
“Like many First Nations communities – especially those in northern areas – we struggle with availability of fresh fruit, vegetables, and reasonably-priced, nutritious foods. The good news is that there is a resurgence of interest in rebuilding the connections to the land and to traditional practices around growing, gathering, fishing, hunting and preserving food. These are what have sustained us for thousands of years. These are what people feel are essential to regain food sovereignty,” said Glenna.
A food forest: “Permaculture” in action
The idea for the food forest grew out of a workshop conducted with Glenna and her CFTC programs team colleagues by Steven Wiig from Holistic Landscape and Design based in Saskatoon, SK. When Glenna heard about the concept of “permaculture”, she knew immediately it was consistent with Indigenous ways of knowing and managing the resources and nourishment that come from the Earth.
According to Bill Mollison, who first used the term ‘permaculture’ and developed it into a discipline, permaculture is: “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
Impacts of poor agricultural practices and climate change
Glenna explained why the food forest was such an attractive option for Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. She told us that community members are concerned that intensive agricultural development and land use practices, in combination with the impacts of climate change, have resulted in the die-off of crops like berries and fruit trees. These naturally-occurring food crops are particularly susceptible to the use of pesticides and other chemicals — contaminants that then make their way into the food chain. In MLCN, Elders observe that the animals that have traditionally provided food for the area’s inhabitants are getting sparse. They believe the animals that remain are not healthy to eat because of all the chemicals they are consuming.
“Up until the 1980s, the community had access to indigenous fruits and berries but since then they’ve been dying off. Permaculture design principles and indigenous food growing and gathering practices are similar. It’s all about working with nature rather than against it as mainstream monoculture practices do. It’s about knowing the contours of the land, practicing sustainable earth ethics, and creating self-contained ecosystems,” Glenna said.
Best practices: Community leadership, capacity-building and sustainability
Not only is permaculture and the development of the food forest consistent with Indigenous practices, but it reflects another principle of CFTC’s programming approach: community leadership and capacity-building. “CFTC works in partnership with First Nations across Canada to support community-led development specifically aligned with the movement to reconnect people with their traditional practices around food and nutrition, food culture, and agriculture,” said Jacquelyn Wright, CFTC’s President & CEO. “Land-based education is a core programming principle that runs throughout our approach to Indigenous food security, from the first programs developed jointly with Eel Ground First Nation in New Brunswick through to this innovative approach initiated by one of our newest partners, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan,” she added.
The food forest came about through discussion and joint planning between Muskeg Lake Cree Nation members, Chief and council, and Canadian Feed The Children, thanks in part to generous funding from the Slaight Family Foundation and the Newall Family Foundation.
From planning to planting!
Glenna established a food security committee in 2017, which includes some of the community’s most influential leaders and has been helpful in engaging other community members in planning the food forest. “We began planning in March 2018. All the “buzz” with the food forest preparations leading up to planting day has piqued people’s interest, and more of them are noticing and asking questions. Overall, we had a terrific response on planting day, especially children and youth – the ‘future leaders’ that Albert Gamble, Muskeg Lake’s Lands Manager, spoke about. I think this is a really good start for ongoing development,” Glenna said.
On October 15th, 2018, the community gathered to plant apple trees, berry bushes, and a variety of complementary trees to attract birds and pollinators – all part of the first phase of the design. The goal is to create a fully sustainable ecosystem that includes fruit trees like apple, pear, plum, cherry and Saskatoon berry, plus undergrowth of strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, sea buckthorn, and haskap berries.
“We hope in the future that this space not only provides a sustainable source of good food but that it also becomes a community meeting space centred on health and wellness for youth, adults and Elders,” said Glenna. “We are currently working on an Elders’ rest area so people have a place to sit and get out of the sun or rain. In addition, we can hold outdoor meetings or workshops or the school can have a place to have outings to include lunch and other meals,” she added.
Future plans for the space include installing a year-round solar and wind-powered greenhouse. Glenna hopes that the next phase of planting will also include a medicinal garden. Other future plans include a children’s play area, walking trails, water catchment, outdoor cooking with a cob (clay) oven, and a compost site.
Like the saplings that have been planted, Muskeg Lake’s food forest is off to a great start and we look forward to bringing you updates as it grows.
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