“The chickens! I don’t know why they’re so popular,” April Slater says with a laugh. “Everyone loves chickens.”
A chicken might be just a go-to meal for many, but for the northern Manitoba residents that April Slater works with, it’s more than just food – it’s a holistic approach to health and independence.
“If you’re able to produce your own meat and you know what you’re feeding it and you know how to process it, that reduces the dependency on outside food,” she says. “Food’s one of your basic needs so you’ll have more opportunity to advance other parts of your life if you know where your food’s coming from.”
Slater, 29, graduated from the Community Development/Community Economic Development program at Red River College in 2013. Today she works for Food Matters Manitoba as the Northern Food Security Assistant, which involves working to alleviate food challenges faced by northerners – including reducing reliance on external food sources, in turn creating greater self-sufficiency.
Raising chickens is one way that’s happening. Food Matters has helped Cross Lake residents raise chickens for a few years, and the program is proving so successful this year it’s expanding into Sherridon.
A chicken up north can easily cost $60, and a watermelon can be $45, Slater says. For many northerners those costs mean providing enough food – let alone enough fresh food – can be next to impossible.
Food Matters currently works in 13 northern communities, including Grand Rapids, where Slater’s grandmother is from. Gardening and returning to traditional foods are other ways Food Matters is working to combat food insecurity in the North.
“I think it’s one of the first steps for people to learn how to take care of themselves and get out of that cycle of dependency,” Slater says of food security. “Because if you have one northern shop in one city then they can pretty much do whatever the heck they want. But if you have a bunch of people and they know how to grow and farm their own food, they’re not really dependent on this sort of top-down system.”
The reservation system eradicated the traditional food skills of many First Nations people, Slater says.
“What I hear from the elders, they say there was a really strong connection to gardening and there was even some livestock happening but those methods of growing your food and being more sustainable were frowned upon by those [government] officials that were in the community.”
Food security, and the economic development that comes along with it, creates opportunity, Slater says.
“Reserves up North have such high suicide rates and they pretty much don’t know what to do with themselves. But here’s an opportunity for us to work together and make a brighter future for everyone.”
Slater was drawn to community economic development because she believes it’s a more proactive way to help.
“My mom got her Social Work degree and she was always saying, ‘Oh look at these kids they get taken away and apprehended.’ It was more reactive problem solving – the families have already collapsed, it’s dysfunctional and it’s gotten to a point where the child needs to be removed. Whereas I wanted a proactive solution to the problem, so why not make that community fix the problem where it started – having more resources for that child to stay with the family.”
She chose to study at RRC because of the small class sizes and the inclusive atmosphere.
“After I graduated high school I went straight to [University of Manitoba]. They tried to prepare me for university but it was such a culture shock. ‘No one cares, I’m just a number;’ that was the mentality I got out of everyone.”
The self-discovery that resulted from the Community Development/Community Economic Development was her favourite part of the program.
“With the nature of community development we were expected to build a community ourselves. My [favourite part] was finding out the different personalities that we all had… and learning the dynamics of being part of a team and learning to work with each other because we were all so different.”
In fact, it was at RRC that Slater first learned about Food Matters Manitoba.
“We were ‘volun-told’ to work at the [annual Food Matters] conference,” she says with a smile.
Profile by Stacy Cardigan Smith (Creative Communications, 2006)