North Caribou Lake’s Boreal Garden Project

In the summer of 2016, a garden was born in North Caribou Lake First Nation. Though originally intended for participants of the New Horizons detoxification program, the project has brought together people of all ages from across the community. Earlier this month, I shared a phone call with Steve Vassallo, a Southern Ontario market gardener, who has helped make this garden a reality two summers in a row. He resides near Markdale, a community located 150 km northwest of Toronto.

For Vassallo, it started in 2015 while catching up with a good friend who had recently visited Weagamow to work with New Horizons, the community’s suboxone treatment centre. The day program, his friend explained, was going well but by nature was limited in the supports it could offer participants after hours. There was, however, interest in a garden as an after-care therapy.

That July, Vassallo received an invitation to visit the community. This first visit confirmed that there was widespread enthusiasm for a garden, not just among New Horizon participants but the broader community. Planning began for a large garden and smaller greenhouse to be built beside the treatment centre in 2016 and a smaller garden was started in the meantime. Over the winter, Vassallo stayed connected to the community through skype and other online means and started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project. Over a third of the funding goal was met but the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful (Kickstart follows an all-or-nothing principle). However, his efforts were featured in a local news column which caught the attention of the principal of a locally-based and well-established community development firm who directed Vassallo to Nishnawbe Aski Nation. By Spring 2016, the Boreal Garden Project was secured $25,000 through a NAN Community Food Initiative Grant.

The funding from NAN would cover the cost of a garden manager position, materials, workshops, transport and travel. This included seeds and starter kits, which had recently been delivered via winter road and three more visits by Vassallo to the community that year, each time staying in the treatment centre next to the project site. Although consistent participation was sometimes a challenge, the first year of the garden was an overall success in building relationships, learning new skills and discovering a new way to enjoy affordable, local and healthy food. Many community members have made a start with smaller gardens at home, too.

This past summer marked the second year of the project. Vassallo went up in late May to help host a seed starting workshop. He drove most of the way with a vehicle filled with 50 lb bags of seed potatoes which were distributed out to communities in the Sioux Lookout area before he flew the final leg to Round Lake. A youth community member was hired to oversee the garden and “tomato factory” (the greenhouse) between Vassallo’s visits, plant seedlings and install things like fences to keep the space safe from turning into games/bike area. Despite these efforts, the community had one of the wettest summers on record and for personal reasons, the youth gardener was unable to continue looking after the site into the summer.

It is unknown what the 2018 growing season will bring for the Boreal Garden Project, but the first two summers demonstrated the enthusiasm that North Caribou Lake First Nation has for fresh, local food and it will be exciting to see how the community continues to explore ways to meet the need for it.

Stay tuned! In the meantime, check out…

The Boreal Garden Project (Facebook page) – includes many more of Vassallo’s stories and sentiments throughout the project:

Weagamow Garden Club (Facebook group):

Owen Sound Sun Times article featuring the fundraising efforts:

Kickstarter campaign page (no longer accepting donations) – includes video: