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The Land as Life-Giver: Two First Nations Cultivate Health and Economic Independence

Two separate community-garden projects are showing how to regain self-sufficiency in food production and beyond.
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One started as a community kitchen, aiming to improve health and well-being of the general population as well as people of few means. The other started as a community garden, helping people get off welfare. The goal of both was to create food self-sufficiency.

In two provinces, two unconnected projects are paving the way for the future. The Squamish Nation's Ustlahn Social Society today oversees programs serving dozens of members, and the Muskoday First Nation's community gardens, in partnership with Heifer Canada, feeds everyone from elders to schoolchildren, training youth for jobs in the process.

“Their vision was to launch a service organization that would supply nourishing meals to people and help them lead a healthier life,” the North Shore News reported earlier this year of the Ustlahn Social Society, founded in 2007 by Squamish Nation elder Barbary Wyss and her brother Rennie Nahanee.

The community kitchen serves 50 or more on a given day. As the kitchen component grew, the founders started looking for ways to make it more sustainable, the North Shore News said in a story on the society and the ways its garden has helped strengthen community ties and improve health.

Wyss and Nahanee got the band council to let the kitchen use an abandoned two-acre lot on Squamish land that had been designated as a park but never really put to use. It had become overgrown, choked with litter, and was a host to thick foliage, rodents, feral cats and dogs, the newspaper reported. The brother and sister transformed it into Harmony Garden, which grows produce for the community kitchen.

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Today the Ustlahn Social Society is “elder-driven with a strong focus on youth involvement, training and employment,” as the newspaper described it. Besides helping operate the kitchen and maintain the community garden, the society’s members are restoring an estuary in the area, the North Shore News said.

Enough fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown there that the garden not only stocks the community kitchen but also donates produce to the tribe’s elders center, various community events and to individuals.

Over in Saskatchewan, The Star Phoenix reported earlier this year, the food sovereignty organization Heifer International and Muskoday First Nation are getting people off welfare and onto healthy eating with organic produce they members are growing themselves. This program stemmed out of a 1999 program in which members grew 450 metric tons of potatoes and got several people off welfare by training them to work in agriculture and related fields.

Although that program didn't last, a new incarnation was born in 2005 when several community members formed the Muskoday Organic Growers Co-op with the band’s permission, in partnership with Heifer International Canada, and started growing potatoes and other vegetables. Today a program exists to train families into farming self-sufficiency, The Star Phoenix said. The program is also training families in other First Nations bands.

Moreover, Heifer International said on its website, the gardens are furnishing everyone from 25 community elders to the school lunch program with produce.

Together the two programs are helping aboriginals in their respective communities in several areas: High rates of diseases such as diabetes and cancer are being combatted by consumption of the actual produce, jobs are being created, and training for youth and strengthening of community is providing an option for those who might contemplate suicide, which is rampant among aboriginals.