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Traditional Mi’kmaq food making a comeback in Natoaganeg

People in Eel Ground love their takeout. But Erica Ward says now they also love spaghetti with moose meatballs and garlic bread.

River Ward, 21, and his sister, Erica Ward, 29, are part of the team at Natoaganeg Community Food Centre, working to serve healthy food to Eel Ground First Nation. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

People in Eel Ground love their takeout. But Erica Ward says they now also love spaghetti with meatballs made from moose rather than ground beef.

It might not seem a big deal, but Ward says persuading people in her community to eat wild meat as their ancestors did, was an uphill battle rooted in the trauma that came from residential schools.

As the manager of the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre, Ward is cleaning up on this fall morning after hosting more than 70 people at the free drop-in meal the night before.

“You may see some spaghetti on the floor,” she says, laughing, as she walks through the dining room that seats 40 people comfortably.

At the Natoaganeg centre, healthy meals are served twice a week at the drop in. (natoaganegcfc.ca)

“Last night everyone was very cozy and mingling and we had spaghetti sauce, we had salad and garlic bread, we had volunteers in the kitchen helping our chef and then we also had youth serving the food to elders … it was an excellent night.”

Since its official opening as a partner with Community Food Centres Canada a year ago, the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre has expanded its programming.

The centre in the community west of Miramichi offers a teaching kitchen with classes for young people and adults, a food bank, cultural workshops, a huge community garden and twice-weekly drop in meals.

This lonely cauliflower is one of the only vegetables still unharvested in the food centre’s garden. The centre made meals all summer using fruits and vegetables from the garden. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

For Ward, one of the most rewarding parts of working at the centre has been seeing the change in attitude toward traditional foods, like moose.

“When I first started here … we would have a freezer full of ground moose and we were left with it. Like a handful of people would take it.”

Ward says even her own mother refused to eat moose or any other traditional Mi’kmaq foods, which were seen as something to be ashamed of.

Standing in front of the centre’s walk-in freezer, Erica Ward holds two packages of ground moose meat. In the past year, a community hunter filled the freezer with meat from eight moose. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC News)

“Moose was you know, ‘Oh, if you’re eating that you’re poor,’ and that was sort of passed on to other community members.”

‘Taking back what was taken from them’

Ward’s younger brother, River Ward, volunteers at the Good Food Bank. He, too, has seen the change in attitude around Mi’kmaq food since the Community Food Centre opened.

“Traditional foods was not something that were given to the students in [residential] schools because that’s just something that was taken away right? Anything that was a part of our culture had to be taken away,” he says.

River Ward prepares for shoppers at the Good Food Bank. Everyone receives a $5 credit to spend on fresh fruits and veggies. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

For Erica, talking about the shame around traditional food and the impact of residential schools is difficult.

“We’re still unsure like, why was that done? Why? Why do that to children,” she says.

“But on the flip side, you see something like this happening in communities and people are taking back what was taken from them. And that’s more important than dwelling on the negative and moving forward as part of reconciliation. I think that is key.”

Tobi Russo, rear left, seen here with volunteer Jessica Larry, right, at the grand opening of the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre in 2018, says the centre is empowering people in Eel Ground to improve their health. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Now, when a community hunter fills the walk-in freezer with moose meat, there isn’t one community member who won’t take it.

“We can prepare a spaghetti and meatballs made with moose meat and 70 people will come out and enjoy it,” Erica says. “So there’s something happening there. We’re not quite sure what it is or how to measure that, but it’s really encouraging.”

People ‘coming together’

River says being at the food centre, surrounded by families and elders, has helped him “embrace” his culture.

“I always leave happy. I feel like my heart is full every time I leave here.”

More than 70 people from Eel Ground visit the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre for the twice weekly meals. Pjila’si means “Welcome” in Mi’kmaq. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Jessica Ginnish, who lives in Natoaganeg, visits the Community Food Centre every day. She and her children, ages 5, 10 and 14, enjoy the drop-in meals and they all like moose meat.

“Everyone loves moose meat, don’t they?” says a smiling Ginnish, who appreciates the centre’s role in the community.

“It’s nice to see that people are coming together instead of falling apart. It’s a nice place to come. I’m comfortable here.”

Good food ‘ingrained’ in Mi’kmaq culture

As Erica gets ready to welcome people to the Good Food Bank, which is in the basement of the food centre, she says the past year has taught her that healthy, traditional food matters.

Cultural workshops at the centre include making traditional pottery for food storage and serving in a backyard fire pit. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

“Good food really does bring people together and that is ingrained in the Mi’kmaq culture.”

“All of our celebrations, our ceremonies, all of that was centred around good food and our traditional foods. So you know there is a little hope left for us, I think.”

Community beats takeout

Erica now regularly hears people in Eel Ground talking about “how good food is important” and how “everybody deserves the right to good food.”

She says that rather than heading to Miramichi for takeout on a Monday night, people now see the food centre as the place to be.

“I can’t go anywhere without somebody asking me, ‘Hey, what’s on the menu for tonight?'”

On Monday nights at the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre, the free drop-in meal is popular, Eric Ward says. (Submitted by Community Food Centres Canada)

Erica takes pride in the fact that people who visit the Good Food Bank leave with the ingredients and the knowledge they need to make a healthy, traditional meal.

“I get the odd message here and there, saying, ‘Hey, I made a moose stew tonight from everything that was available at the food centre.”

For Erica, all of these small interactions add up to something much bigger.

“I believe there’s a movement fully happening among First Nations people,” she says. “We’re just ready to be who we really are and have pride in that, and you can see it happening across Canada.”

Vanessa Blanch visited the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre a year after it opened. 8:13

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