Grants help transform Wiikwemkoong greenhouse into all-season operation

Upgrades to the greenhouse at Wikwemikong High School will mean that snowy winters can’t stop the growth within.

WIIKWEMKOONG – Teams are upgrading a greenhouse at Wikwemikong High School (WHS) to turn it into a four-season growing facility through a partnership with Focus Forward for Indigenous Youth (FFFIY) and a $30,000 contribution from RBC Future Launch, creating a community service that will bolster food sovereignty, enable opportunities for education and enhance existing services for the community.

“We’re very grateful to be doing the work together in partnership with the communities and the school, so we’re really looking forward to seeing what the spring brings,” said Caitlin Patterson, national program director of FFFIY.

The registered charity offers experiential learning opportunities to Indigenous youth, opportunities that help them develop valuable life skills and earn credits toward their graduation. It works with host communities to identify opportunities for growth and development that would be best suited for their individual circumstances.

The charity began in 2017. In 2020, it received funding from the Canadian government’s youth employment and skills strategy to grow its operations over the next three years.

Wiikwemkoong citizens and Island-based food advocates, including Local Food Manitoulin, identified a greenhouse as a key project that would bring considerable benefit to the community. They partnered with FFFIY to launch the effort. This greenhouse and a similar one in Saskatchewan’s Montreal Lake Cree Nation have been the charity’s two biggest projects to date.

“(We worked with Wiikwemkoong on) how we could build a program together that leads to employment and skills training development opportunities, overall well-being around mental health, physical wellness and access to fresh food, connecting people back to the knowledge of fresh food in the community and being able to offer foods back to community members in the spring and summer,” said Ms. Patterson.

The greenhouse has been quite the construction zone as these significant upgrades have gone into place over the past few months.

The goal is to empower students with knowledge of fresh foods and local sources, as well as giving them the tools to expand upon and share that knowledge with friends, family and other community members. 

The construction process has adjusted on a weekly basis as public health restrictions have evolved but is now nearly complete. The team hopes to start offering programming by February in what it’s calling the ‘Wiikwemkoong Greenhouse for Change.’

FFFIY directors said the project would not have been possible without the support of RBC Future Launch, which contributed $30,000 to the greenhouse expansion. Future Launch is a 10-year, $500 million fund for initiatives that support youth growth and development.

The prospective programming has evolved through discussions with school instructors, the board and the community’s food security working group.

“We’re really trying to listen to what the community need is and build up programming together that’s going to address some of these needs,” said Rebecca Rolfe, director of community engagement and program development at FFFIY.

WHS principal Harold Fox said it was exciting to see the work underway ahead of its targeted completion within the coming month, and to envision the ways it would impact his students. 

“There’s a number of possibilities we’re looking at, from our tech shop to help create some garden beds, to having our students work in the greenhouse and earn a co-op credit at the same time. We may possibly have our students in green industry classes work alongside the greenhouse,” said Mr. Fox.

Some of the work involved in converting the space to a year-round operation has involved a new air system, heating and water, as well as internet access and a laptop to control the various functions involved in the operation.

When in operation, there will be 12 youth employed part-time from February to June, each working 15 to 20 hours per week. The job readiness and skills development components count toward their working hours and efforts in the greenhouse will count toward a co-operative education high school credit.

Students have been involved in this greenhouse from day one. When it first went up in 2018, 13 youth worked over a summer to create the three-season growing space. There will be fewer students involved in the winter expansion because of the technical nature of many components, but some of them will help with arranging planters, tables and shelving units.

Ms. Rolfe said completing both projects alongside Wiikwemkoong teams was a positive experience and she was hopeful that there would be more opportunities for collaboration in the future. She added that Local Food Manitoulin was a major supporter and a useful partner in the project.

Earlier this year, Wiikewmkoong received $49,500 from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to create an outdoor kitchen on a two-acre parcel of land just above the high school. Its main purpose is for Indigenous agri-tourism but will also be a space to highlight local products, transfer traditional knowledge and support local food producers.

Ms. Rolfe said the original concept for that space began through a student’s summer project in 2018, when FFFIY helped to organize a workshop to encourage students to envision what community spaces they would like to see in their community.

“This brings our projects at Focus Forward full circle, so you’ll be able to grow things in the greenhouse, walk next door with them and learn how to cook and make meals for people. I think it’s so exciting,” she said.