In the Spirit of Giving and Receiving in the Dehcho and the Sahtu

Republished for Food Banks Canada
By: Principal Angela Griffin, Deh Gáh Elementary and Secondary School in Fort Providence, NWT 

“After a long year of COVID physical distancing, we came together as one to feed families for Christmas.” – Angela Griffin 

As a child, I remember my mother assembling Christmas baskets that were more Christmas crates than baskets. At night, she had me leave them on the doorsteps of people living near us who were in need, usually due to unemployment. I was to run away without being seen by the beneficiaries of that anonymous generosity. In those boxes were frozen meats, canned vegetables, cereals, bread and sweets, along with wrapped and tagged gifts for any children living within the household. We were not rich, but we never went without food or presents at Christmas. My father always worked. We were blessed with good health and prosperity in this country and needed to share our good fortune with others less fortunate, especially at Christmas. 

Now, I am the school principal of Deh Gáh Elementary and Secondary School in Fort Providence, NWT. In Fort Providence, there is historical trauma and poverty. As a community, Fort Providence has embarked upon implementing initiatives that will bring the children well ahead of the devastating learning curve that prevails in indigenous communities all across northern Canada. One significant step in improving learning opportunities for the children here is addressing their nutrition. 

One of the most significant legacies of European colonization is rooted poverty. Poverty has exacerbated the distress of First Nations and has led to a prevalence of diagnosable mental health problems such as chemical addictions and suicide. Extensive medical and psychological research has demonstrated the negative effects that poverty has on the physical, socio-economic, and cognitive well-being of children. Poverty also means greater exposure to poor social conditions.  

In Northern indigenous communities across Canada, quality food and premium sources of protein are scarce and costly. Food costs are at a premium in Northern indigenous communities – particularly in regards to fly-in communities. A diet of processed food impacts the health and wellness of community members. 

Community members prefer to hunt and fish; however, shifting climate patterns have impacted the ability to hunt as they once did. Thus, the need for quality, affordable sources of protein is at a premium in these communities. 

In October 2020, Lisa Sommers, Food Procurement Manager at Food Banks Canada, reached out to me. She wrote that Food Banks Canada was one of several organizations that applied and received federal funding to distribute excess, high quality, frozen protein products (meats/fish) in Northern communities through the Federal Government’s Surplus Food Recovery Program. 

Food that may otherwise go to waste during the ongoing pandemic was to be matched and distributed to local charities and nonprofits across the country to feed Canadians who need it most. 

Lisa was reaching out to communities like Fort Providence that faced food insecurity. Recipients could freeze these products for up to a year with proper cold storage. These products would be delivered frozen and would need to be frozen until used. She invited expressions of interest in receiving products like Yellowfin Sole, Atlantic Salmon fillets, frozen chicken thighs and legs before noon on Wednesday, October 7th, 2020. 

The size of these products would be on a standard 40” x 48” pallet and weigh approximately 1,500 lbs. These pallets could be double-stacked in storage, provided that a forklift is used to load and unload them. 

I calculated the school freezer storage space and responded that evening after school. I explained that Deh Gáh School was a JK-12 school and had a student population of 103. I told Lisa that we emptied our fridges, freezers, food cupboards, and kitchen shelves during COVID to feed the community. We had four huge freezers, each at 66 cubic feet, that were currently empty.I told Lisa that we could take as many pallets as they could spare. I knew that the community would devour any amount of fish or chicken. 900 people live in Fort Providence and are often in need of affordable meat. They love to fish but the river would be frozen soon and limit fishing. Climate change complicated the hunting of bison and caribou on traditional lands. Soon, we would be in Arctic frozen temperatures, which meant cold storage of any products would not be an issue. 

I assured Lisa that the only constraint would be not having enough for the people here and thanked her for thinking of us. 

She told me that I was the first one to respond to her email and said that they would be pleased to fill our freezers again. 

By October 27th, Lisa wrote to me that though she had me down for 10 pallets, she wondered if I could take 26. She asked if any other community agencies in Fort Providence would be interested in receiving additional pallets. 

As the amount of product grew, I asked former Deh Gáh Principal and Northern Loco owner, Lois Philipp, and Fort Providence community librarian, Linda Croft, for assistance. Lois and Linda run the Meals on Wheels program for community elders and the Friendship Centre Food Bank within the community. 

Linda emailed Lisa to coordinate the food donation to the community and suggested that we distribute the food to neighbouring indigenous communities that rely on land resources for sustenance. 

Linda assured Lisa that we could handle the extra pallets and could store the food outside the buildings or in sea cans over the winter months. 

Through Lois, we had access to a forklift and people to help unload the meat. Linda said that we could arrange for people to meet the truck at the time of delivery and disperse some of it right away. The rest we would store and give out as needed. 

On November 10, 2020, Lois emailed Lisa and said that if Lisa wanted to ship as much as possible, we would work to have it distributed within the community and surrounding communities. We reached out to N’dilo, Dettah, Hay River Reserve, Fort Resolution, Fort Liard, Kakisa, Wrigley and Jean Marie River to offer them a pallet or two based on population. Lois told Lisa that we could get the food to 11 communities where there lived approximately 35,000 people. Lois suggested this breakdown of distribution:

  • Hay River Reserve – 2 pallets
  • Fort Resolution – 2 pallets
  • Hay River – 2 pallets
  • Behchoko – 3 pallets
  • N’Dilo – 1 pallet
  • Dettah – 1 pallet
  • Fort Simpson – 2 pallets
  • Yellowknife – 4 pallets
  • Fort Liard – 2 pallets
  • Fort Smith – 2 pallets
  • Fort Providence – 6 pallets

Lois and Linda also offered to coordinate and assist with shipping, while Greg Rowe of Rowe’s Construction donated his company’s time and resources to ship for us. 

Lisa contacted us during the last week of school before Christmas break to confirm that they would be in Fort Providence by December 18th. The shipment was met by Lois and her team and they unpacked and stored the meat in the sea can next to the Fort Providence Snowshoe Inn. 

The chicken was distributed to the community between December 19th and December 26th. It felt joyful to give boxes of quality chicken to grateful families. The smiles were wide on everyone’s face. They said, “Mahsicho!” and “Merry Christmas!” It was a wonderful way to begin the Christmas break. After a long year of COVID physical distancing, we came together as one to feed families for Christmas. The meat was dispersed throughout the Dehcho to grateful recipients. 

On December 17, Sandy MacPherson of Buffalo Air contacted me because he heard my interview with Cabin Radio and reached out to offer his services distributing food to the more remote communities. During the last week before Christmas, Lisa worked tirelessly to coordinate with Buffalo Air and Northwright Air to fly chicken to Colville Lake, Tulit’a and Déline. I reached out to my former friends and colleagues in the Sahtu to act as receivers in their communities. Classroom Assistant, Georgina Oudzi agreed to receive the chicken and distribute it in Colville Lake; Program Support Teacher, Karen Christiansen, would receive and distribute the product in Tulit’a; and Former Chief Negotiator for Déline Self-Government and Heavy Equipment Business Owner, Danny Gaudet, would receive and distribute the chicken in Déline. 

It was a merry Christmas in the Dehcho and the Sahtu through the combined efforts of four women – three L’s (Lisa, Lois and Linda), and Angela, as well as the donation of time and resources of Sandy MacPherson of Buffalo Air, Greg Rowe of Rowe’s Construction, Kyle Newhook of Northwright Air, Georgina Oudzi of Colville Lake, Karen Christiansen of Tuilt’a, and Danny Gaudet of Déline. 

Providing high-quality protein to the inhabitants of Northern indigenous communities is a game-changer in every way. As the educational leader of Fort Providence, providing meat to my students will help them learn, develop and grow as they should. It also allowed them to have a more joyful Christmas with their families. 

Mahsicho, Lisa Sommers, Food Banks Canada! Happy Christmas from the Dehcho and the Sahtu!