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Denesuline: 'Land of the Willow' grocer helps provide affordable food to remote Fort Chipewyan

Councillor Michelle Voyageur of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at an event at the Kahkiyow Keykanow EldersÕ Care Home in Fort Chipewyan on February 8, 2018.

Vincent McDermott / Postmedia

Fort Chipewyan — At one point, Michelle Voyageur didn’t care if her fruits and vegetables were mushy or spotty. It was still a consumer victory if they were at least edible.

When buying food in Fort Chipewyan, consumers often had their hands tied if they wanted something healthy or affordable. For many in the northern hamlet, and dozens of other northern communities across Canada, the cheapest option was usually frozen and processed meals loaded with sugar, salt and fat.

As a band councillor with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, pushing for the opening of the K’ai Tailé Market has been one of Voyageur’s biggest accomplishments.

The grocery store (Denesuline for “Land of the Willow”), opened this past summer.

Subsidized through Nutrition North and ACFN, the store is able to ship fruits, vegetables and meats twice weekly, a rare feat for Canada’s northern communities.

In the following interview, edited for space, Voyageur explains some of the motives behind opening Denesuline.

Q: Why was a second grocery store so important to Fort Chipewyan?

People were really struggling with high costs for food, limited selection, poor quality of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a lack of meeting consumer needs.

Now we have people who have different, special dietary needs and they weren’t getting the service they needed.

As a nation, we decided to address the food insecurity issues.

One of the barriers to opening the grocery store in the past was Fort Chipewyan was ineligible for the Nutrition North subsidy. We were recently approved and we can now sell our food at cheaper prices.

Q: How does the store operate?

Our mandate to our store manager is to sell healthy and affordable food. We’re not asking for a ton of money to be made. It’s an easy mandate: create some jobs, educate people on healthy food items and just provide access.

We have a butcher in house, so every day we’re putting out fresh meat.

We have a bakery in store, too. We’ve partnered with Loblaws as a distributor.

It’s such a privilege to walk in and choose between pork, chicken, beef, sausages and burgers, to really feel like a consumer.

I bought a cauliflower yesterday and it was so beautiful. It was so nice to go in and just grab some veggies and eat them fresh.

Q: Fort Chipewyan has a large hunting, trapping and fishing community. Has this changed the relationship that people in Fort Chipewyan have with food?

Before it was shop-til-you-drop, buy as much as you can to stock up. It was very stressful and expensive as an individual sometimes.

I can say all of our members are saving money. A single dad with two kids told us he saved $1,400 within the first weeks of operations.

Part of our goal was the money saved on food could help our land users spend more time in the bush.

That disposable income can be spent on gas and they can go out more often. We do fish and moose harvests, so we give our hunters $50 per day to buy food for when they’re on land.

You wouldn’t believe the amount of food they can buy now. It lets them stay out longer, harvest more and save money.

The principal of our school told me the grocery store has helped with staff retention. The staff are much more happier because they have access to this stuff.

Q: Health issues, such as obesity and heart disease, have been discussed by ACFN, as well as the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Fort Chipewyan Metis. The Wood Buffalo Food Bank is also working on ways to expand its services in the community. What is being done to combat those food-related issues?

Those issues have been part of our desire to have access to healthy and affordable food. Sometimes we will hear people ask how we’re able to operate by selling some products at the same price seen in Fort McMurray. A lot of it has to do with that mandate and the Nutrition North subsidy.

We’ve also been bringing healthy food and vegetable options to get people to sample them and introduce people to more variety. The Nunee Health board also has shopping experiences to teach people about nutrition. We have plans to do more health promotion.

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