Canada’s third Indigenous community food centre launches in Northern Saskatchewan

An elder helps prepare fish for cooking at the Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Community Food Centre. -- Photo from Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Community Food Centre Facebook page.

Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC) announced the launch of its first Saskatchewan location on Monday, and the second Indigenous led location in the country.

The Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Community Food Centre will offer community food programs that teach cooking and preparation skills, improve food security and access, and build cultural connections.

Program manager Rebecca Sylvestre, said it’s a welcome addition to a remote northern area where a lack of food choices and higher than average food prices are a major concern.

“This is needed right across the country,” Sylvestre said during a phone interview. “When we first began we were thinking about becoming a food bank, but what exactly does a food bank do for you? They give you food and they send you home. That doesn’t teach you anything. We’re going to teach you how to grow. We’re going to teach you how to cook. We’re going to teach you how to hand wash. We’re going to teach everything.”

Sylvestre said there’s a huge demand in northern communities for traditional food like duck or moose meat, but many young adults leave home without the skills needed to fix, prepare and cook the game. Instead, that task usually falls to community elders.

The new food centre will give the older generations a chance to pass on their skills to their children and grandchildren, and strengthen community bonds.

“We’re doing so many amazing things together, and imagine the future when we leave this legacy to them,” she said. “Imagine what they’re going to teach their children. It’s not going to stop.”

CFCC began working with community members in Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows back in 2017. The goal was to develop a partnership that would combine the Community Food Centre model with traditional Indigenous food practices and teachings.

During that time, community members researched health and nutrition concerns, and began meeting with other communities to start good food locations of their own.

CFCC CEO Nick Saul said that partnership has grown and deepened over the years, and it’s helped create a unique program.

“We’re thrilled to celebrate this milestone together today,” Saul said in a media release. “We’re proud to both support and learn from them as part of CFCC’s commitment to investing in Indigenous communities, and honouring Indigenous rights to self-determination.”

There have been some challenges, of course. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down outreach efforts in Cold Lake and other areas looking to start food centres, while burst water pipes and historically cold weather slowed developments back in Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows.

Sylvestre said it was frustrating at the time, but working with CFCC helped them find a solution. She prepared a meal for a group of contractors in town working on the community sewer system, and asked them if they’d look at the food centre’s pipes. A few days later, the company came back and agreed to fix it for free.

“Every project has challenges, right,” Sylvestre said. “You’ve just got to stay focused. We’ve got a great team that works with us, and they’re amazing: Community Food Centres Canada. You reach out to them with a problem that’s huge to me, but to them, it’s, ‘okay, how can we do this? What do we need to do? How can we get to help?’”

Sylvestre added that the food centre will help with more than just nutrition and healthy living. It will also help build community.

Food, she explained, is at the heart of culture. It’s where residents get together to share stories, meet friends and connect with family. Sylvestre credited her father for helping her realize the importance of culture, and that’s driven her to get involved with the food centre.

The Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Food Centre joins similar programs in the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre in Eel Ground First Nation, N.B. as Canada’s only food centres in Indigenous communities.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to the Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Food Centre as the third Indigenous-led food centre in Canada. It is actually the second.