By Rick Garrick
FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION—Fort William celebrated the grand opening of its Gaa-Azhe-Anishinaabeyaayang (Back to our Ways) Community Garden on September 22, 2016, on the grounds of the community’s Ontario Works Building.
“When we look at when we first planted in the spring and the growth that we have here today, it is very exciting to see,” says Fort William Chief Peter Collins. “But also [when you] look at the numbers that travel through the community garden through the summertime, there’s been upwards of 50-plus people that have participated or have extracted the product that has been grown in our garden.”
Fort William developed the Community Garden in partnership with Roots to Harvest, an incorporated, not-for-profit organization based in Thunder Bay that provides educational opportunities for youth to engage with local agriculture and cultivate healthy communities. The 265-foot by 40-foot Community Garden features raised beds for vegetables, orchard trees, and a variety of berries.
“We are excited with the partnership we have with Roots to Harvest,” Collins says. “I thank them for the work they have done here at Fort William on behalf of our community. I would like to thank our [Ontario Works] office for the work they have done to get the community garden to where it is today too.”
Shannon Crews, manager of the Ontario Works office, says the Community Garden is a positive focal point for the community to grow food and learn together.
“A lot of our youth worked with [Roots to Harvest],” Crews says. “This year we had a lot of food coming out of the beds. And when people came here, they were welcome to come in and pick and eat and take part in the garden.”
Shivonne Charlie, employment counsellor with Ontario Works, says the gardening work is part of the employment program for Ontario Work’s clients.
“We have been harvesting as the season has progressed,” Charlie says. “We picked some beans and had them available on the beginning of the month.”
Rita Charles, Fort William’s Anishinabek diabetes educator, says the Community Garden is good for community spirit and food security.
“It brings community spirit back,” Charles says. “And it brings great food security to our people. For me, being the diabetes educator, I think food security is one of the most important things when it comes to diabetes.”
Elder Victor Pelletier says his father used to have a garden in an open field in the bush many years ago.
“I remember going with him [to the garden],” Pelletier says. “He planted potatoes all the time, and they pulled us through the winter months. I don’t know about onions — I’m pretty sure I saw him with onions, but that goes back quite a ways. But potatoes [were] the main dish I guess at that time.”
Tracy Paul, eligibility review and family responsibility officer with Ontario Works, says the Community Garden has already contributed to the community’s Ontario Works Food Bank.
“There is a wide variety of vegetables, we’ve got apple trees on the end and every year we will plant something a little bit different,” Paul says. “Our goal when we harvest [is] to do some canning with the community members as well on how to make tomato sauce, on how to pickle beets and add some more skills for our community.”