People and programs 06/01/2018

What does it take to create a truly inclusive community space? For starters, when someone walks in the door, they need to see a part of themselves and their values reflected back to them. How does that happen? Community members need to be at the table, co-creating spaces and programs, ensuring they resonate with the people they aim to serve. 

Let's take a closer look at how communities are strengthening food programs through the incorporation of local Indigenous cultures and traditions.

Forest Lawn is a multicultural Calgary neighbourhood with a high percentage of people living on low incomes, as well as a high population of people who identify as First Nations or Métis. Community members wanted a place where everyone was welcome and respected, a place that reflected and celebrated the community’s diversity. 

So The Alex Community Food Centre, located in the heart of Forest Lawn, formed a partnership with the Aboriginal Friendship Centre. Together, they planned and hosted The Alex’s first ever community meal in early 2017. Indigenous community elders performed a smudging ceremony, a prayer, a drum circle, and shared their lived experiences. Indigenous community members had the chance to participate in their cultural traditions in a public setting, and non-Indigenous community members got to experience them first-hand—many of them for the first time. 

“As Indigenous peoples, we’re taught from a young age that meals are for sharing,” says Dion Nelson of the Aboriginal Friendship Centre. “Food is held in high regard in our culture. When you don’t have the means to eat those traditional foods, or buy enough food for you to share with your family and friends, it has a real impact on your well-being, your ability to practice your culture. That’s why it’s so important to create programs where people can not only access a good meal, but they get to have that meaningful cultural experience, and share it with others.”

In partnership with the Aboriginal Friendship Centre, The Alex now offers the Eagle Spirit Survivors Lunch, a unique bi-weekly meal program that brings community members together to share a meal and honour Indigenous culture. Community Chef Bethel Tesfay and a team of volunteers prepare recipes from Indigenous cookbooks, featuring traditional foods such as elk, bannock, root vegetables, and grains native to the region. They cook up big batches, as well over 100 people come out for every lunch—often a mix of Métis, Cree, Blackfoot, Anishinaabe, and non-Indigenous community members. 

“We begin the meal with a drum circle, a smudge, and prayers of thanks to the land, led by volunteers from the Aboriginal Friendship Centre,” explains Bethel. “We acknowledge we are on Treaty land, and hear stories of survival, struggles, and strength of people who were here long before us. We acknowledge the existence of a community of families and friends who shared meals together on the very land we stand on. It is the way we choose to honour our past.”


Bethel and her volunteers prepare the lunches with the belief that everyone has value to add, something to contribute to make the meal complete. The act of working together to create and share a meal is a core practice in Indigenous cultures, where everyone in a community has an important role to play.

Miriam Bankey, Volunteer and Food Skills Coordinator at The Alex, says it’s been essential for the organization to listen to the community. “Our role at The Alex is to make space for storytelling, learning, and building reciprocal, open-hearted relationships.” 

There’s a similar approach to programming at NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre, located in Inkster, a Winnipeg neighbourhood with a lot of First Nations and Métis families. An elder from the community named Ivy Chaske works at the CFC every Thursday and has taken a lead role in implementing Indigenous traditions into programming. She plays an integral role in ensuring the weekly community dinner resonates with the community, leading sharing circles and building relationships with the many young people who attend.

On this year’s spring equinox, NorWest Co-op held a feast of traditional Indigenous foods, complete with a smudging ceremony and a food offering for the spirits. On every table, there was a bowl of Saskatoon berries for community members to share. Ivy worked closely with Community Chef Camille Metcalfe to plan the feast and offer guidance on the ceremony. 

Camille, who has a Métis background, works hard to incorporate traditional foods into the dinner menu each Thursday, often featuring bison and wild rice. 

“It’s so empowering to have your culture represented outside your own home—seeing your culture reflected, respected among your peers,” says Camille. “It helps you feel connected to your community.” 

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