September 28, 2021

The Living Classroom: A blossoming lesson in collaboration

By on August 9, 2021 0 37 Views

Sonia Burke-Smith beams when she talks about The Living Classroom. A Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre initiative in collaboration with the McMurray Métis, Grow Moar Inc., supported by the Fort McMurray Public School Division (FMPSD), The Living Classroom has a goal to provide sustainable food for Indigenous and low-income families.

Sonia Burke-Smith, Youth Coordinator for the Nistawoyou Centre, spearheads The Living Classroom for its third year. Photo supplied

Burke-Smith, who is a Youth Coordinator for the Nistawoyou Centre, won a challenge to grow a community garden along with her co-worker in 2019, and that started it all.

“The challenge was from our ANFCA (Alberta Native Friendship Centre Association). We placed second but I thought it would be great to expand the program. The Living Classroom became a reality because we became aware of the lack of healthy produce available to Indigenous and low-income families, plus the realization that we are living in a food desert because we don’t have any farms within a 100 km radius, that classifies us as a desert,” explains Burke-Smith, who has been living in the region on and off since 1977.

“We were really blessed to connect with Sheryl Huppie, Gardening Coordinator at McMurray Métis, and Micheal Moar from Grow Moar Inc., (local indoor/outdoor gardener/entrepreneur). Michael and Sheryl had been working on creating a community growing space for years and have really helped this project successful last year.”

Elder Rosalie shows off her recently delivered the first crop of peas and lettuce.

“I had applied for funding through a grant program offered by the Local Food Infrastructure Fund through the federal government to not just work on growing food, but storing it because we live in the north and our growing season is short. We need to not only grow it fast but also be able to store it to last through the winter. Originally, we were planning to transform the front of the Friendship Centre lawn and grow at Métis Local 1935 grounds, but two events turned it into a community-wide project. The pandemic hit and the flood happened.”

With the flood wiping out the garden space at the Centre and the pandemic sending students home, the empty garden boxes at FMPSD schools were an opportunity to ask if they could be used.

“We approached the Fort McMurray Public School Division and last summer put in gardens at a few schools and the plot together with McMurray Métis with Grow Moar Inc. We worked with Elders and youth to maintain the garden spaces casually, and a small group developed.”

“Although we did manage to experience success and supply food for hampers for Elders, we knew we needed to grow way more food if we wanted to help families. So we approached the schools again and now are expanding the program with a plan to upgrade existing beds, build new ones and include students in the growing, maintaining, harvesting and learning how to store food for longer past the regular season,” continued Burke-Smith.

With the pandemic continuing, the demand arose, and the organizers are now planning to reach out to the community to maintain the gardens. “We are currently growing an Indigenous Medicine Garden at Dave McNeilly Public School, Dr. Clark Public School will feature a Healing Garden and a community food garden, Walter and Gladys Hill Public School, Christina Gordon Public School, Timberlea Public School, McTavish High School, Fort McMurray Christian School, Greely Road Public School and Thickwood Heights School will feature community food gardens as well.”

Annalee Nutter, Assistant Superintendent, Education and Administration, noted, the collaboration bloomed organically.

Dr. Clark Public School is just one of many local schools making space for The Living Classroom.

“FMPSD has been fortunate to develop and maintain a partnership with The Nistawoyou Friendship Centre for a number of years. This partnership is valued because of its focus on Indigenous content, which creates awareness of the culture of our local Indigenous people along with ways we can implement the content across the curriculum. Through subjects such as Art, Environmental Science, Character Education and Outdoor Gardening, we are able to use hands-on learning with an Indigenous lens. We always appreciate working together with the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre, sharing projects and knowledge for the benefit of all.”

With Elders and youth working together for the program since last year, Burke-Smith is excited for the future of The Living Classroom, which she said teaches students about “urban farming, food security, preserving, and about the many micro-businesses they can start with urban farming.”

“We hope to repeat last year’s success, and expand past our organizations so that we eventually create a network that provides locally produced food year-round to address food insecurity in our region. We will also be teaching about foraging food sources for food and medicine as we want youth to learn about the bounty that exists in our backyard. This will allow students to connect to local Indigenous culture and we hope to share traditional knowledge through the project.”

Looking into the future, they are exploring passive greenhouses, which are solar and do not use an artificial heat source such as propane; indoor gardening, and expanding into spaces that are not being used in the community to grow food and medicinal plants to create an urban farm movement.

“Together we have worked hard to create this project and will continue to expand it with youth so all community members have access to healthy food. Growing your own food has its own benefits, but there are also secondary benefits such as improvements to mental health, physical health, community connections and friendships, but also our climate footprint becomes smaller with locally produced food. I grew the first garden three years ago, and I can say I am hooked on what we can do as a community and so are all our partners.”

Sonia Burke-Smith and Elder Frank MacDonald prepare the setup of the garden boxes outside of Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre in June 2021. Photo by Greg Halinda Photography

“I think that’s what has always made Fort McMurray home for me is when the issue is raised how many hands come together to help. We are not funded this year, though we have put out applications. This project will be community-driven through donations, which we have received so far in plants, seeds and dirt. McMurray Métis will be building and donating beds for the schools and the Friendship Centre. We are continuing to look for funding as this is a multi-year program. Coming soon, we will be activating a volunteer sign-up on WBVoluteers.ca under Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre -The Living Classroom,” added Burke-Smith. Learn more about The Living Classroom on Facebook.

About the author

Freelance Journalist

Fort McMurray resident of 17 years, Kiran Malik-Khan is a local freelance journalist and communications manager for the Fort McMurray Public School District. As a community leader, she actively volunteers in the community with NorthWord Magazine, World Hijab Day YMM and the Northern Lights Regional Health Foundation.