On Tea Creek farm at Kitwanga, 46 Indigenous youths from northwest B.C. have just completed a two-month long trade skills training program.
The skills acquired by these 15 to 30-year-old youths from the Gitsegukla, Gitwangak, Kitselas, Gitanyow and Nisga’a communities are an investment for the future as their communities move toward food sovereignty.
A wooden, cost-effective greenhouse made on-site, using lumber from local mills, stands as a testament to what they learned during the pilot program called Indigenous Youth Works (IYW) that ran from Feb.1 to Mar.31.
According to Jacob and Jessica Beaton, owners of Tea Creek – who developed the program– training youths and building manpower is the first step toward achieving food sovereignty for Indigenous communities in the region.
As part of IYW, Indigenous youths were divided into small groups and received training and mentorship in agriculture, site-maintenance, machine operation, carpentry and construction.
The Beatons developed the IYW model after the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the stark reality of food insecurity in northwest B.C. – which was further exacerbated by transportation challenges, wildfires in California and a seed shortage throughout North America.
Tea Creek stepped up and supplied surrounding communities with lettuce, kale, spinach, cabbages, potatoes and onions grown on the farm’s two acres.
The farm began as a homestead two years ago and during the pandemic expanded into a fully operational commercial market garden and the Beatons were able to demonstrate how to maximize production in smaller spaces using agro-ecological techniques like permaculture, mulching and weed suppression among other organic methods.
The Beatons then found themselves bombarded with requests from organizations and First Nation communities battling food insecurity from Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers and Kitimat who wanted to set up their own food systems.
But setting up farms was not easy especially since there was an acute shortage of skilled manpower.
Jacob realized they needed to build a strong foundation of expertise within First Nation communities to move toward the goal of achieving Indigenous food sovereignty.
“What we’re trying to achieve here (with food sovereignty ) is not as simple as growing and selling crops… It’s a complicated beast,” he said.
That included revitalizing a lush farming culture that previously existed in northwest B.C. due to its micro climate.
“In the past, this region – from Hazelton to Terrace – used to be known as the ‘Okanagan of the North,” said Jacob.
With colonization and Indigenous people losing their their lands and having their children sent to residential schools, many generations lost out on the passing down of traditional farming knowledge and agricultural practices, said Jacob.
That’s why Indigenous food sovereignty as opposed to just getting to a point of food security is important to Jacob, who is Tsimshian.
It was not just about having sufficient produce available and locked away in freezers, but Indigenous food sovereignty is a grassroots initiative looking at increasing local capacity and allowing First Nations to make their own decisions around food production, he said.
It revolves around building up Indigenous people to work on Indigenous-owned farms and working with the environment, not against it.
“Without that, Indigenous communities will risk having farms owned by them but having to import farm workers and expertise from somewhere else,” he said.
And for this, local communities need people with a wide range of skills – to run the farms, manage them, work on them and maintain everything.
“So we came up with the concept of training people in all the skills that are needed as a sort of step one to create a workforce before we look at expanding and helping communities set up farms,” he said.
Jacob and Jessica approached sponsors to fund the program with their philosophy that food sovereignty was the perfect place to learn trades and a variety of skills including marketing, communication, business management among others.
Transferable skills learned through farming also increases chances of employment in other sectors for youths – many of whom hail from low income households in the region.
In addition, the program was also designed to provide a culturally safe environment.
“It’s a place where Indigenous youth can be free from racism, bullying and oppression that might be experienced in mainstream schools and workplaces,” said Jacob.
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The Beatons received financial support from Algonquin College, the Industry Training Authority BC, First Nations Agriculture Association of British Columbia, Kitselas First Nation and the Gitanyow band.
They had 75 applicants and even though the initial plan was to host 25 youths, the program expanded to include 46. The Beatons invested their own money to cover some of the cost and relied on volunteers to mentor and help with transportation of youths from distant communities.
Along with training and mentorship, the youth also received an employment wage.
David Hansen, director of employment and training for the Kitselas First Nation – that had 14 youths participate in IYW – said that the program was an investment for their community as they sought to build their own food system on 100 acres of their land outside of Terrace.
Hansen called IYW a “purposeful program” where youths not only get exposure in diverse sectors but also an opportunity to benefit their own communities with the skills they have acquired.
As Indigenous-led food sovereignty takes root in communities, the Beatons also hope they can bring back some of the pre-contact farming practices.
“We’re looking forward to doing this program again, with more support, and without COVID, hopefully hanging over our heads complicating everything,” said Jacob.