When he saw the Buffalo airlines charter approaching the Aklavik airstrip, swaying and bobbing in the wind, Michael Greenland surely felt relief. Michael is the president of the Ehdiitat Gwich’in Council in Aklavik, Northwest Territories. He knew exactly what was on that plane: the first shipment of frozen and canned food sent from Second Harvest.
That plane, a Buffalo Airways DC3, had a long flight that day. The food on it travelled even further: first loaded onto a truck in Edmonton and trucked into the Northwest Territories several days before that charter flight landed its wheels on the snowy airstrip in this isolated northern community. Planes of this size are rarely seen arriving into this small community, perhaps once or twice a year according to Michael, and the locals likely knew something was up.
The hamlet of Aklavik is home to approximately 600 people – mostly Gwich’in, Metis and Inuvialuit (Western Canadian Inuit). Roughly translated as “Barrenground Grizzly”, Aklavik is located above the Arctic Circle and was first established as a fur trading post by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 20th century.
The first contact between Second Harvest and the GTC in Aklavik first took place in early October 2020. Debbie Greenland, the GTC Executive Director, worked with Second Harvest on the logistics of receiving the large shipments of turkey breasts, chicken drumsticks, fries, canned salmon and eggs. The food would need to be transported on pallets and ultimately distributed to the entire community.
Living Off of the Land in Remote Northern Canada
When many of the white settlers abandoned Aklavik in the 1950s when the government moved the regional centre to Inuvik, roughly 100 kilometres to the east (it was on higher, drier ground) many indigenous families opted to stay put and continue traditional hunting on the familiar lands for their primary food source.
The “Never Say Die” message covers the Aklavik coat of arms today, representing resilience and community. Some of the houses are raised off the ground on stilts to ward off the risk of flooding of the Peel Channel and so that the warmth of the home doesn’t add to the premature melt of permafrost.
It is set amongst extraordinary landscapes which represent the splendour of the Canadian North.
But the remote community is struggling with food shortage and Michael knew of the importance of the shipment within that airplane and the next one which would arrive two days later, on Halloween night in 2020.
According to Michael, the Gwich’in tribal council in Inuvik was first contacted by the food rescue program in Ottawa and the process was put in motion.
“The first plane came in with nine pallets full of food,” Michael explained. “I have a small [front] loader and so I unloaded the plane onto a truck a trailer and got it all set up.”
Michael and local volunteers then divided up the food and distributed directly to the participants of the program, door to door. After the initial distribution they realized more food remained. “We opened it up to the rest of the community, other aboriginal groups and non-aboriginal, basically everyone in town ended up with an equal share.”
“We put a message out on social media saying ‘come one, come all and pick up’ … and they did,” he said. “Vehicles just started coming and the thank yous and praises we received were just awesome.”
The communities in this part of Canada are accessible mostly by ice roads, an incredible crack-ridden and marbled icy network of roads across the Mackenzie River Delta, crucial to connecting the local communities and accessing Aklavik. It was a mild early winter with a number of vehicles falling through the ice, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The Aklavik ice road officially opened on Christmas day.
For the Aklavik community, the food shipments made a tremendously positive impact.
“We fed all of Aklavik for a couple of weeks for sure, if that’s all the food they had, and for some people for a couple of months,” he said. “It was a lot of food, and good food as well. The fries were really good, we got a lot of feedback about how good the fries were.”
With salmon numbers at historic lows on the Yukon River in 2020, it was good fortune and good timing for the First Nations families to hear the news of a massive shipment of food arriving from Second Harvest.
After receiving the shipment, the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate (YFNED) successfully delivered over 10,000 pounds of frozen chum salmon, along with 20,000 pounds of canned salmon in early November 2020.
The food reached roughly 1,600 families in the Takhini Arena surrounding Whitehorse and other areas of the Yukon – including a “substantial portion of the First Nations communities, if not all,” said Katherine Alexander, a spokesperson from the YFNED.
Alexander said that volunteers distributed all the food within two days – they were anticipating “at least five days” – at a parking lot drive-through they had staged in Whitehorse. The food was well received in the community and brought a lot of excitement from appreciative parents and elders who could stock up freezers and pantries with the frozen and canned goods.
Boots on the ground
The YFNED group launched in the summer of 2020 in response to a need and desire to unify First Nations education in the territory. Through educational programs and services, it seeks community empowerment through a focus on preparing children to take a more active role in the current world and to see students excel in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds.
The distribution of the food shipment, which arrived on large semi-trailer trucks, also provided an opportunity for the YFNED volunteers and staff to meet the locals directly.
“The Yukon has about 40,000 people and one quarter are First Nations,” explained Alexander. “We advertised in traditional ways but also word of mouth helped to promote what we were up to. It was nice to connect with the community.”
With the second longest salmon run in the world, the Yukon River was well below normal levels of salmon population. This made the news of the impending salmon shipment that much better in terms of timing for the remote Northern communities.
This was also an ideal response to the Jordan’s Principle, a Canadian government program which ensures all First Nations children living in Canada can access the food, products, services and support they need. This, of course, includes food.
Far reaching food distribution network
Throughout the entirety of the Surplus Food Rescue program, Second Harvest has distributed close to 155,000 pounds of healthy food – mostly meat and fish – to the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate (154,085 lbs at the date of this story publishing). The first shipment arrived in Whitehorse in mid September, with four subsequent shipments over the course of the next two months.
With 14 First Nations and 8 language groups covering nearly all the land in Yukon (including some from the Northwest Territories and British Columbia), the food shipment successfully reached the following nations:
Kwanlin Dun First Nation
Ta’an First Nation
Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation
Selkirk First Nation
Ross River First Nation
Teslin Tlingit Council
Carcross Tagish First Nation
Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation
Liard First Nation
Champagne Aishihik First Nation
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation
Kluane First Nation
White River First Nation
T’rondek Hwechin First Nation
Both Second Harvest and the YFNED are tremendously excited over the successful food deliveries, which was made possible through the federal government’s Surplus Food Rescue Program, which allows for purchasing and redistribution of perishable food to communities across Canada, with 10 per cent or more being directed to northern communities.
The world is full of people in need year-round, but no time is that more visible than during the holiday season. For some, it’s a time for cozy family moments, closeness, holiday food and cheer … for others, this year more than any other, food insecurity is high and the need for support is great.
The 2020 GIVING Gift Guide offers a wonderful opportunity to get gifts for your loved ones andgive back. Second Harvest is fortunate to have the support of these gracious and giving partners who share in our goal of helping those who need help, need food and need hope.
9 Gift Ideas That Help Those in Need This Holiday Season
National Hockey League star Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs made one of his greatest-ever assists on Thursday night.
Along with a star-studded panel of guests – including Hockey Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour, comedian and host of Family Feud Gerry Dee and other NHL players – Marner headlined the One Team United fundraiser which raised enough money to provide 120,000 meals to families in need.
Hockey fans have seen his on-ice talent and magical goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Marner’s philanthropic nature and big heart was on full display during the 90-minute stream-a-thon, hosted by Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid.
“We all know Mitch is an extremely talented hockey player but it’s his desire to help and connect with people off the ice that is so impressive,” said Debbi Coull-Cicchini, of Intact Insurance, to kick off the event.
Marner was all smiles during the 90-minute virtual fundraiser but was all business on the importance of supporting this cause.
“We started with Second Harvest early in the pandemic and came back to them again when an opportunity came up to help and feed families,” he explained during his opening comments. “It’s been a lot of fun working with Second Harvest … every one dollar gets two meals so let’s make a lot of families happy during the holidays.”
That they did. Gift cards to buy presents and food were available for purchase and given to food-insecure Canadian families in need of some holiday cheer, hope and support.
Marner’s friends were quick to jump at the opportunity to support the event. His Maple Leafs teammate, defenseman Justin Holl was happy to support his friend and roommate. “Mitch is an awesome guy, he stays very busy doing a lot of things that are often beneficial to other people,” Holl said. “He’s always got something going on to try to help the community. It’s something I really respect about him.”
Overall the event and the evening was a huge success, a monumental assist by Mitch Marner.
View the stream-a-thon below
About the Marner Assist Fund
The goal of the Marner Assist Fund is to generate positive change for children and youth by providing resources that will make a significant impact on their lives. MAF’s focus is to assist in the areas of children’s social care, health, education as well as supporting environmental causes ensuring children will have a sustainable future.
When Alex Pryor, an Anglican pastor in the remote northern community of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, received a phone call from Second Harvest food rescue inquiring if there was a need in the community for nearly 6,000 pounds of frozen food, he nearly fell off his chair.
The community has had a miserable year, says Pryor, unlike any other and the timing was “an answer to prayer”. The church-run food bank in Fort Smith also supports the community of Fort Resolution, a few hours away along the shoreline of the Great Slave Lake.
Remote communities battle the pandemic, floods and lack of food
It’s been a tough year for those living near the second largest lake in Canada (also the deepest in North America) for many reasons.
Waters have run high—more than a third of a metre higher than last year. This was mostly due to natural ecological reasons such as a reconnection of lakes and ponds which were isolated during low water years and are now flowing back to ‘The Big Lake’, as it’s known to locals. Likewise, hunting and fishing have ground to a halt and freezers in most homes are empty.
Transporting frozen rescued food to empty freezers in remote Canada
When Second Harvest’s Wendy Erlanger, Head of Operations for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Northwest Territories, made the call to Alex to ask about food rescue services in his community, he responded with a resounding “absolutely, yes!”
The plans were then put in motion to distribute the food rescue shipments from Regina, Saskatchewan, primarily made up of fish (trout, flounder, salmon) and chicken. Alex and the food bank volunteers reached out to the community to find refrigeration space for the frozen food and make a plan for distribution.
“My goal is that freezers in homes will be filled as in a normal year,” he told us.
A letter of thanks from a remote community in a time of need
The following heart-warming letter from Alex was sent to Second Harvest, re-affirming the critically important work of the outreach and support to remote communities, particularly those affected by particularly hard times. Here’s what he wrote to us:
On top of everything else that 2020 has brought our way, the wet weather and short spring brought the highest water levels on the Slave River and Great Slave Lake. The water rose to spring-melt levels and is only now just starting to drop, because of high rain and snowy winter in northern B.C., which flows east through the Peace River, until it joins the Athabasca and turns north towards the Arctic.
The high water has stirred up historic levels of mud and sediment. One of the huge local impacts is that the fishing has been awful with the murky water in rivers and streams, while fishing on the Slave has been downright dangerous with the amount of timber flowing through the current. People usually end the summer with a freezer stocked with pickerel, and our community bulletin board is usually full of offers from young people sharing their catch with elders. The catch was so bad this year that there’s nothing to share.
To make matters worse, the river still being at spring levels means the fall hunt isn’t going well. For generations, people have used boats to hunt moose along the Slave River, but with so much water still higher up in the woods, the moose aren’t walking along the river. I’ve only heard of one moose caught in town so far, though I know at least two dozen guys who have gone out hunting … some to find that their remote cabins along the river have been washed away! I’m told even the bison hunt is slow because some of the backcountry trails are still flooded with standing water.
The bottom line is, on top of the pandemic, airline lay-offs, construction projects on hold due to soaring lumber costs, a quiet fire season (this is a way good news, but also lost income and early lay-offs for seasonal woodland firefighters) and a failed tourism season, anyone depending on traditional sources of protein is heading into winter with an empty freezer.
The call from Second Harvest was certainly an answer to prayer—when I called the lady who runs our food bank, she could hardly hold back tears. She had gotten calls from people in Fort Resolution (a Dene community of 470 located 300 km north of us) asking if we had extra food to share since their community doesn’t have a food bank. Now we can help the elders and low-income folks of both communities.