A Case Study: The Wiikwemkoong Greenhouse for Change
Focus Forward for Indigenous Youth understands that each First Nation, Inuit, and Metis community is unique and faces their own set of challenges. This has led us to develop a community-centric approach to project and program development, ensuring we maximize benefits for youth and their communities.
We always start by engaging with community members to find a project that will create a positive impact for everyone, and then we work to build an educational program around that project. While we believe this is the correct approach, it means we do not have one “cookie-cutter” solution that we implement. Instead, we take a collaborative approach along every step of the development process and through program implementation.
The best way to truly understand the value of this dynamic approach is through an example. So, we have documented the story of the Wiikwemkoong Greenhouse for Change in the following five sections; this is the path we followed to bring the project from idea to reality.
1. Conducting Community Engagement
Every Focus Forward project begins with a conversation with community representatives.
In the case of the Wiikwemkoong Greenhouse for Change (WGC), our Chairman, Evan Veryard, was connected with Jocelyn and Christianna, two individuals who worked at the Wiiwkemkoong Development Commission. This is an organization that supports self-sufficiency to improve the quality of life for community members of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory.
Evan intended to hold a short initial phone call detailing how Focus Forward could help develop a community project that youth could build. He would then leave them with some time to consider what could work well within their community. The call took place in the spring of 2017, but that’s not how it played out.
Two hours after the start of the call, Evan was still learning about the incredible initiatives already happening in the Wiikwemkoong community and their ideas for future growth. As one example, Jocelyn and Christiana had already helped build over 200 raised garden beds throughout the community and were conducting agricultural workshops on a regular basis.
It was an inspiring phone call that served as the start of a special partnership. One reoccurring theme throughout the call was the need for a dedicated community space for agricultural programming. While the community had completed a study in 2015 outlining the potential economic benefits of an improved agricultural sector, they lacked the necessary infrastructure to start growing the industry. So, the initial concept for a greenhouse was born.
Once the initial concept is formed, we start designing the project based on local needs.
The initial vision for the Wiikwemkoong greenhouse was outlined by Jocelyn and Christianna. Their idea was to build an agricultural tool for their community that could:
- Be used in all four seasons; this year-round consistency would help make agriculture a pillar of the community.
- Be solar-powered and largely self-sufficient; this would eliminate a heavy operational burden on the community.
- Hold a class of approximately 20 students; this would support the growth of agricultural workshops within the community.
At this stage, we also included the Wiikwemkoong Board of Education into the development process. Based on the desire to involve youth in the construction, and the opportunities to augment classes at the local schools, they were a natural partner.
Through further conversations, the WGC development team floated the idea of building the greenhouse into a south-facing hillside next to the local high school. Although this sounded like an unnecessary challenge initially, the insulative benefits would significantly reduce heating requirements and serve as an excellent teaching tool for youth. It also spoke to the ingenuity and vision of the Wiikwemkoong community members.
By that time, we had brought our design team on board, led by Focus Forward’s Director of Operations, Cedric Pepelea. While developing a four-season, self-sufficient, buried greenhouse of this size would be a real challenge – we felt it was one we could tackle based on the passion and determination of our community partners. In the end, we developed the final conceptual design for the greenhouse, with the following important features:
- 5 kW Solar PV System; this would ensure net-zero power consumption for the greenhouse.
- ICF (Insulated Concrete Form) Construction; this is the construction technique used within the community on all new housing projects, ensuring youth would learn relevant local trades skills.
- Wood-pellet Boiler Heating; this technology fits with the community’s initiative of phasing out electric heating in favor of biomass and the desire to start producing their own wood-pellets.
With the conceptual design finalized, we turned to the next step in the process.
2. Sourcing The Required Resources
Once a conceptual design is finalized, we start sourcing the required resources.
At this stage, our grant writers and fundraisers went to work finding the right funding opportunities to pursue. First, we decided to enter the Aviva Community Fund; a Canada wide competition that put us up against 250 other ideas to compete for a $50,000 grant. To win we needed to receive as many votes from the public as possible. So we worked with our community partners and pulled out all the stops.
We spread the word through friends and family, social media platforms, and spoke with university students in Kingston (coaxing out votes with chocolates). We also made a trip up to Wiikwemkoong to participate in a community apple pressing event to raise awareness for the competition. The local schools also helped students vote for the project during the campaign.
In the end, we finished with just over 17,000 votes – enough to put us through to the top 15 across Canada and be reviewed by their panel. Then in November we received a call; we had won the $50,000 prize. It was a huge first step for the project’s funding and really set the project in motion. We travelled back to Wiikwemkoong for a celebration at the school, and to discuss next steps and re-focus our efforts.
Over the Fall and Winter, we applied for and received funding from the Government of Ontario through the Skills Catalyst fund, from Ontario First Nations Limited Partnership fund, and RBC Future Launch. We also secured in-kind sponsorships from national and local companies such as Amvic (ICF manufacturer), Evonik Industries (glazing manufacturer) and Corbiere Enterprises (local concrete supplier).
As Winter was ending, we had secured the necessary resources to move forward with the project.
3. Developing Programming
With the resources secured, we start organizing program specifics.
For all of our projects, we try to source local contractors wherever possible. This approach helps support the local economy, but more importantly, it connects youth directly with potential future employers. For the WGC project, we decided to use the Wiikwemkoong Housing Department as the primary contractors. They were excited about the opportunity to work with youth on the build site, and also had strong relationships with local suppliers.
For the programming aspect, we worked closely with our community partners at the Wiikwemkoong Development Commission and Wiikwemkoong Board of Education to determine the specifics. Initially it was decided we would organize programming around the students’ summer break, and we would have space at the high-school available for training. We then filled in the remaining details:
- We organized a 7-week rotational training schedule where students split their time between a build site and classroom setting. For the classroom aspect, this included a full suite of safety training (WHIMIS, Working at Heights, OHSA, Forklift Operator), careers and job readiness workshops, financial literacy, Greentech workshops, among others.
- The student would receive full-time employment and two high school credits for their participation in the 7-week program.
- We sourced 13 students (7 boys, 6 girls) of varying age and skill-level who wanted to participate in the program.
- We organized a weeklong sustainable design workshop run by a partnering charity, No. 9.
- We organized 4 of days of solar system installation workshops and hands-on training.
With the programming specifics finalized, we prepared for the ground breaking.
4. Executing the Programming
With the resources secured and the programing finalized, the project can begin as scheduled.
The Wiikwemoong Greenhouse for Change officially kicked off with a community ground-breaking ceremony held a few weeks before school ended in the summer of 2018. The ceremony included a smudging, speeches by key partners including Ogimaa Duke Peltier, sod turning with several of the program participants, and concluded with a feast in the school cafeteria.
After the ground breaking ceremony, contractors started preparing the site so programming could start once the students were ready. At the beginning of July, students arrived at the school for their first day.
The first week started with a full set of safety training, and ended with two days on site. The subsequent weeks consisted of two groups of students rotating between (half-day) classroom and build site training activities. This provided a balance between hands-on and theoretical training, and gave students a well-deserved rest from the demanding physical labor on the build site.
Of particular note were two unique weeks where students participated in workshops outside the scope of the build site.
The first was a program call imagine my sustainable community run by registered charity No. 9. In the workshop, students learned to used Google Sketch-up and built (to-scale) 3D digital models of different spaces they imagined throughout the school grounds. The program encouraged them to consider sustainable technology and holistic design approaches and concluded with presentations of their models to community members.
The second was a 4-day workshop on solar PV system installation that finished with a practical component. Solar contractors from North American Solar Academy worked with students over two days using various training mock-ups to teach the skills required to install solar systems. For interested students, this was followed by an opportunity to install the greenhouse’s solar system on the roof of the high school.
Overall we were incredibly happy with the results of the program. All 13 students who started in July, finished the full 7 weeks of programming. While there were some missed days and challenging times, all students persevered. In our evaluation of the programming with students, we noted many successes.
Along with specific certifications, skills, and professional networks that students developed over the summer, another important piece is the personal knowledge they gained in terms of what they want to pursue in life as well as greater understanding of what they can achieve. Youth participants said the experience, “Opened my eyes to different career paths” and that as a result of the program, “I now want to become an engineer
Many students remarked that they have set a new goal of graduating from high school after completing the program. Through conversations had between FFFIY staff and students, some students shared that they have not enjoy the hard, physical work on the build site and want to continue pursuing their studies to be able to work on something more academic. These are all lessons that youth can apply immediately as they continue their education to be able to set themselves up for future success in whatever areas they pursue.
Another positive effect that was noted was a consistent message from the students clearly indicating an improved perspective towards their education and capabilities. One student remarked that they, “really love learning and feel much more powerful now.” Others stated they felt ‘heroic’ and want to become an advocate for youth. In addition to this, from conversations with educators who are familiar with the students, there has been a clear change in attitude and behaviour. One faculty member was quoted as saying, “I think the greenhouse project was absolutely amazing. Life-changing. I have seen it in my son and in his classmates.”
The final day of programming ended with students helping Jocelyn and Christianna plant 20 trees that would serve as the start of an orchard in the Wiiwkemkoong community. The agricultural initiatives in Wiiwemkoong seem to increase in number and scale with each passing season.
Overall, we think the benefits of the program can best be summarized by one of the participants:
It’s about bringing awareness for Aboriginal students in knowing their own abilities and their own self-confidence.
A lot of schools don’t have that option to go out and build another piece of their school or even their community…
So that’s something special about our community and something we don’t always have available but it’s new and it’s special for us.
And while the youth programing ended, the work continues.
5. Supporting The Project
Once the programming is complete, we continue working with community partners to ensure the project is a success.
After the 7-weeks of programming came to a close, work on the build site continued. The project was too great in scope to be completed over the summer, so contractors continued into the Fall and Spring.
The greenhouse structure is now complete and the interior is scheduled to be completed early in the Spring of 2020. This will be followed with agricultural programming slated to begin as soon as the weather warms.
With everyone excited for the greenhouse programming, from school teachers to workshop organizers, the real impact of the project is about to get underway. We plan on holding a grand opening ceremony this spring, and keep everyone up to date with the growth in programming and the positive results for all involved.
At this point we hope you can see this project for what it is; a homegrown project rooted in Wiikwemkoong land and representative of Indigenous food sovereignty; a greenhouse that will serve the agricultural needs of the Wiikwemkoong community based solely on their desires.
This is the approach we take with every project and we aim to achieve similar results for every community that we partner with.