More than a commodity

Île-à-la-Crosse Fish Company. Photo provided by Sakitawak Development Corporation.

How controlling the value chain is improving Indigenous agriculture in northern Saskatchewan

Agriculture in Saskatchewan is about a lot more than broad-acre farming. While the ongoing and growing importance of grains, pulses, and oil seeds in feeding and fueling the world is well recognized, Indigenous harvesters in northern Saskatchewan quietly produce top quality ingredients for export and consumption. Today, they are also taking a larger ownership role, improving their influence on the value chain and product prices. Currently producing largely white label products, the demand for these products—grown and sustainably harvested in some of the world’s most pristine regions—is growing. For Île-à-la-Crosse Fish Company, the harvest is often sold before it’s out of the water.

“We’re in a good position before the product even is harvested [because] most of it is already committed somewhere,” says Tyler Morin, CEO of Sakitawak Development Corporation (SDC), the majority owner of Île-à-la-Crosse Fish Company.

Île-à-la-Crosse Fish Company. Photo provided by Sakitawak Development Corporation.

Morin says until recently, they hadn’t considered themselves in agriculture. But that’s changing. And so is the definition of agriculture—most importantly by financial institutions. Leading the way is Farm Credit Canada, which expanded its definition to include activities like foraging and fishing last year.

Besides being more inclusive and increasing financial opportunities for Indigenous agriculture, expanding traditional conceptions of agriculture means approaching land more comprehensively, suggests Shaun Soonias, director of Indigenous relations for Farm Credit Canada (FCC).

“There’s only certain lands in Canada that are good for [grains and oil seeds], and of the land that our communities have, some is just great for forage, and if they’re in these areas [with] herbs, medicines and mushrooms, those wild crafting side of things, [or] timber forest products, are the agriculture that they have available,” says Soonias. “So [it’s a question of] how do they understand that market and create that space for it, but also leverage what they have at their disposal.”

In northern Saskatchewan, this means fresh walleye, wild rice, and morel mushrooms, which pop up in droves roughly a year after a wildfire has passed through an area. A few processing companies have formed to add value to these raw products and get them to market.

Boreal Heartland harvests non-timber forest products, like fireweed and morels, and produces teas and mushroom products. The business focuses on providing income opportunities for local people, showcasing the richness of the boreal forest, and promoting social and environmental sustainability. Launched in 2017, the company has distribution throughout western Canada and beyond.

A bit further northwest, Île-à-la-Crosse Fish Company and NWC Wild Rice Company process and package the products gathered by Indigenous fish and rice harvesters in the Île-à-la-Crosse region. Morin says SDC started the fish company in partnership with fish harvesters. While SDC owns 51 per cent, and the fish harvesters through a cooperative own 49 per cent, the end game is having the fish harvesters own 100 per cent of the processing plant.

“The end goal was for our fishers to have ownership in our company,” says Morin. “The intent was to eventually transfer over all of the stakes, [and] that fishermen at the end of the day would have something that they rightfully own. We are a work in progress right now [but] that still is the goal.”

Morin says over the past few decades, the industry was in an uncertain place and creating the processing plant helped provide some stability. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and mines in the region closed, fish harvesting and the processing plant provided jobs and continuity for many in the community.

“With the downturn in the economy, when the mine sites were closed, they laid off a lot of the guys, and they had the fishing industry to fall back on,” says Morin. “We employed a lot of those people that were laid off at our fish plant and upped our numbers from 15 to 30 employees. So we put people to work and have our product available for everyone during a time when nobody knew what was going on globally, but we had something to fall back on. So we take a certain amount of pride in that.”

Harvest for northern fishers happens in the winter. Most years, it takes place from November to April. It’s a challenging and complex industry. But, for fishers, like many southern farmers, harvesting fish is about a lot more than business. “It’s a way of life,” says Morin.

Bordered by dense boreal forest and pristine lakes, northern communities are linked to the land and water around them in a way difficult for a southerner to fully understand. The quiet pride and deep humility of the people in the region reflect the solitude and resourcefulness demanded by many of these people’s way of living.

Île-à-la-Crosse, like many northern communities, is a Métis settlement. The village sits at the end of a 20 km long peninsula and is nearly surrounded by incredibly clear, fresh water. Uniquely connected to three major rivers in northern Saskatchewan, the village was the site of trade routes and trading posts. Historically a business community, the people in northern communities continue to trade. Alongside trapping, many people in the region harvest, among other things, morels, wild rice, and walleye—each a delicacy now used by chefs in top restaurants throughout the province.

The wild rice reflects a deep history of cooperation among Indigenous communities, says Nap Gardiner, CEO of NWC Wild Rice. Originating from the Anishinaabe people in what is now Ontario and northern Minnesota, the rice made its way to northern Saskatchewan to feed muskrat populations, a prize item during fur trade days.

Today, Gardiner says a relatively small region in northwest Saskatchewan, from Green Lake north to La Loche, and from the Alberta border to Pinehouse, produces “in decent years” a quarter of the country’s wild rice.

“So there’s some healthy participation by Indigenous people in this region, as harvesters,” says Gardiner. Wild rice harvesters lease portions of a waterway to seed. These places can be hard to get to and require deep knowledge of the land and water to navigate and understand well enough to produce and harvest the rice.

“What happens is that they have access to lake bodies that they like or want to seed,” says Gardiner. “And if you do it right, and if nature helps you or if you have natural damming or control of water waves or creeks or streams or whatever, then you have a higher chance of having your bumper crop.”

For decades, fish and rice harvesters have been price takers in uncertain markets, suggest both Morin and Gardiner. Both their companies aim to improve control over the price harvesters receive for their product.

“Many times [rice harvesters] didn’t know what to expect to be paid until such time as they weighed the rice and were handed some cash,” says Gardiner. “We thought that it was time for Indigenous people to start owning a larger spectrum of the industry.”

According to Gardiner, this ownership also allows for research and development into better equipment and increased processing capabilities. Each step along this path helps harvesters capture more value from the value chain, improving price control but also the sustainability of their livelihood.