Cape Breton's Potlotek First Nation is one of the first Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada to install a greenhouse, geothermal climate battery and sustainable in-ground heating system to address food insecurity all year round.
"Food security in our communities is a little different because people invite you to share in the resources that they have, but for Potlotek residents, we've seen food [prices] being increased due to inflation, due to demand, due to lack of supplies," said Tahirih Paul, the band's economic development officer.
"So everybody who is on a fixed income has been trying to make ends meet a little more than they're accustomed to."
Paul had already been looking for ways to improve food security in Potlotek when she was approached by an Indigenous-led organization about its Community Garden Project initiative. The organization connects science, culture, education and digital skills.
Digital Mi'kmaq offered to install a greenhouse, climate battery, in-ground heating system and end house, which provides a space for gathering and learning. The project would allow the community to grow fresh, healthy food all year long.
Paul jumped at the opportunity.
The community garden project at Potlotek began on Sept. 15 through funding from the United Way.
But Digital Mi'kmaq's initiative doesn't stop there.
It is setting up greenhouses in five other First Nations communities in Atlantic Canada: Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Lennox Island in Prince Edward Island, Eel River Bar and Kingsclear in New Brunswick and Miawpukek in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"I think food insecurity has long been a reality for most First Nations communities across all of Canada since, well, colonialism," said Marni Fullerton, the director of Digital Mi'kmaq.
In the fall of 2014, a study funded by Health Canada asked more than 1,000 people from 11 communities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland about their health and diet.
The study found that of the Indigenous communities surveyed in Atlantic Canada, 31 per cent of households were food insecure, and nine per cent severely food insecure.
For comparison, a report published in 2015 done on food security levels across Canada said Nova Scotia had the highest levels of food insecurity in the country with 17.3 per cent of food-insecure households in the province.
Fullerton said Potlotek community members rely on a nearby convenience store and small grocery store, which is about 10 kilometres away, for most of their food and necessities. The nearest supermarket is in Port Hawkesbury, 55 kilometres west of the community.
As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Atlantic Canada in March, Fullerton said the need for stable income and food sources became dire in many First Nations communities.
Small, locally owned businesses — which Fullerton says represents about 40 per cent of the revenue in many First Nations communities — were forced to close, and schools were shut down so lunch programs were no longer available to students.
"It just became a whole impactful series of things," she said.
"And we just looked at it and decided to actually really put the rigour and thought into how it would be addressed comprehensively, as opposed to it just being a food bank kind of initiative."
So far, the greenhouses, field gardens, climate batteries and in-ground heating systems have been installed in most of the participating communities.
End houses, which will provide a space for gathering and learning, will be built after the holidays, if weather permits.
Fullerton said she expects the greenhouses will be ready to operate by spring.
"That's really, really important. They'll have access to fresh, healthy, local food," she said.
The initiative will also create jobs in each community. In Potlotek, there will be 12 new jobs — five will be year-round and seven will be seasonal.
"This is a very grassroots build.... The communities, of course, have also contributed resources and land, heart and soul and ideas," Fullerton said.
Paul said people in Potlotek, including students and elders, have already started volunteering to help out at the greenhouse.
"It's very enlightening to see that hope in their faces," she said.
Fullerton said if all goes well, she's hoping Digital Mi'kmaq will be able to expand to all 32 Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada.
"We're still in the process of trying to generate more funds because one of the core objectives is that this becomes sustainable."
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