Editor’s note: The COVID-19 outbreak in northwest Saskatchewan has exposed weaknesses in the region’s fragile food system. In this three-part series, Global News will share what some local leaders, businesses and residents have said about how a month in lockdown without access to southern stores has changed how they think about feeding their communities and their families. This is part 3. Read parts 1 and 2 here.
Knowing it was just a matter of time before the novel coronavirus presented in northwest Saskatchewan, a group of Dene hunters and trappers from English River First Nation began gathering wild meat in March.
Although there were no COVID-19 cases being reported in the region, “we got on it right away,” said band member Lisa Janvier, who was also working on the regional pandemic response plan. “We were prepped for what was going to happen.”
The entire community was involved in the harvest, she said. There were three moose and caribou as well as muskrats and fish. Most of the meat was divvied up among the nation’s 200-plus households, with elders the priority. The remainder was added to the emergency stockpile of donated food at the local hall.
In April, the virus arrived on the reserve. It didn’t spread beyond the one family, which, despite having 15 people under one roof, managed to contain it to just a few members.
But elsewhere in the northwest, new cases were being confirmed each day. Throughout May, under a provincial public health order, no one was allowed in or out of the region.
“We were pretty much well ready,” Janvier said.
English River is served by a Northern Store in the village of Patuanuak and a handful of confectioneries. Unable to travel south to large urban centres for food, the lockdown emphasized the strong relationship the band has maintained with the land and its traditions of gifting and sharing remain essential to survival.
Concerning development policies
Despite the forest fires that burned through the area in 2015, the relative isolation of English River First Nation and its traditional hunting grounds has helped keep much intact, Janvier said.
Priscilla Settee, an Indigenous studies professor at the University of Saskatchewan and a native of the northeast Saskatchewan community of Cumberland House, pointed to the pseudo-settled land grabs and extraction of natural resources that have disrupted and destroyed animal habitats in areas that people once relied on for food.
“Naturally, it is going to and it is having an impact on food sovereignty, food security,” she said.
“I’m really concerned that the development policies have really taken the control of food right out of the hands of communities.”
A lot of people in Indigenous communities have come to rely, at least in part, on the factory farms and the chain grocery stores of the industrialized food system. But because of geographic and socio-economic challenges related to colonialism, many are unable to access the best or the healthiest items, Settee pointed out.
University of Regina professor Donica Belisle, who teaches food history, also casts a critical lens on how the industrialized system in place can generally perpetuate oppression.
“I think we’re in an interesting moment historically when we’re seeing kind of the negative sides of the way we’ve organized food distribution for over 100 years now,” she said
Supports for local food initiative fall short
Although some federal and provincial policies have been put in place in response to the pandemic, they aren’t necessarily reaching the local food initiatives in Indigenous communities, like the ones in northern Saskatchewan.
John Belanger is the general manager of the commercial Île-à-la-Crosse Fish Company, a unique venture partially owned by fishermen who fish the local Churchill River system. The walleye, pike and jackfish are sold throughout the Prairies, including from the processing plant directly to locals.
Although there were some limited funding options available for small enterprises that could have potentially helped, the Île-à-la-Crosse Fish Company closed when the novel coronavirus presented in the region because the 10 to 20 employees work in such close quarters, Belanger said.
That meant fishermen weren’t able to fish out the lakes’ quotas before ice began breaking up, making it dangerous to go out. While they could approach the province for an extension, it’s now spawning season.
“We can’t just do 10 pounds at a time. We have to do a hundred pounds,” Belanger said. “There’s the heat, there’s the power, there’s the wages. You have to pay the fishermen. There’s a huge overcost.”
As a business that only operates in the winter and spring, there’s not much the Île-à-la-Crosse Fish Company can do now other than wait for the season to change, he said.
Amid the novel coronavirus outbreak and throughout the subsequent regional lockdown, the people of northwest Saskatchewan have relied on their traditions and their neighbours.
“It brought the community closer,” Janvier said. “It opened up a lot on learning to get along and respect one another.”
With travel restrictions lifted, people can travel south again for groceries. An executive vice-president of the company that runs the Northern Stores in the region expects many probably will. But the pandemic has changed how it thinks about serving the area, said Gary Merasty, also the chief development officer.
“We’ve started thinking internally a bit as a company: how can we work with communities?” he said, noting the North West Company would be open to consider partnering on both local gardening and meat initiatives if and where possible. “How can we help them lobby and advocate at a federal level or provincial level to help make that reality?”
La Loche Mayor Robert St. Pierre said during the lockdown, “the First Nations and Métis Nation really stepped up the game… on food security.”
With so much focus on how to contain the novel coronavirus, he said he hasn’t had crossed those bridges with higher levels of government, yet.
Saskatchewan Government Relations Minister Lori Carr said the province is open to working with the region.
“As we have those discussions with the leaders and issues come up, we’ll work with them on that,” Carr said.
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