People and programs
700 kilometers north of Saskatoon, Rebecca Sylvestre reflects on how her tight knit community has changed amidst the lockdown. “We were always a community that gathered.”, she says. “Now we’re a community that has to stay apart. It’s heartbreaking.”
Rebecca recalls when everyone would come together for baseball games, kids’ gym nights, face painting or - Rebecca’s favourite - the annual moose meat community feast.“We’d send out the hunters to gather all of this delicious meat and our elders would come and sit and they’d teach the youth how to fix and prepare it,” Rebecca says. “I loved seeing everybody talking and learning, with the kids running around, playing and laughing. I miss it.”
Rebecca is the Program Manager for the Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Community Food Centre, which is scheduled to officially open later this year. Back in the fall of 2017, Rebecca approached Community Food Centres Canada about partnering to open a new food centre in this community of Dene and Cree Nations. Many in Northern Saskatchewan are food insecure. As a passionate community builder, Rebecca saw the high need and became determined to provide more support to food insecure families and children.
“As a community we share together so no one falls between the lines.”
She was inspired by CFCC's model and saw a partnership as an opportunity to integrate traditional food practices, like hunting and fishing, with other community activities and food programs. With guidance and funding from CFCC, renovations on the new space began while Rebecca developed land-based programming, community meals and cooking programs to run out of the local school.
When the first case of Covid-19 was identified in the neighbouring La Loche, Birch Narrows and Turnor Lake were forced into total lockdown as a precautionary measure. The community was completely cut off. “Honestly, we felt abandoned,” Rebecca says. “It took a long time for the government to come through, and we thought we’d been left behind. But CFCC was able to offer support very quickly. I just had to cry. I finally could breathe.” And so, though its doors are not yet officially open, the Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows CFC became a critical resource for families within the Dene and Cree Nations community.
COVID-19 has been especially hard on the community’s Elders. Most have been isolated from a community that had been intentionally built around their wisdom and guidance.“What makes the Community Food Centre so essential is that our elders are now turning to us, not only for food, but for connection and kindness. It breaks my heart to not see them every day, but we need to protect them with everything we've got,” Rebecca says.“We can’t risk losing them. These are our story givers. They mean the world to us.”
Rebecca and her team are working hard to keep the community safe, fed and healthy. In addition to the CFC’s good food boxes, hunters have donated fresh caribou meat, local fishermen have donated fish, and youth have been out hunting rabbits and delivering them to families in need. Rebecca even made a video series on how to prepare them. “So far, we’re managing to hold down the fort,” Rebecca says. “It’s not easy, but we’re currently feeding 175 families, helping them get baby formula, emergency supplies or find whatever they need to get through this.”
Rebecca says she’s motivated to keep going thanks to the kindness and support of the families is what keeps her going. She embodies the resilience and persistence that has guided her community through previous struggles. “There were a lot of times when we faced obstacles and we've always come back together again. The government picked us up and moved us over here, and we grew again. A lot of our kids were growing up in residential schools. They came home and we grew again. We will always manage to come back together again. It just takes some time.”