The Wiikwemkoong Greenhouse for Change: From idea to reality

Up until now, we have updated all of you on our major milestones but we have not had the opportunity to share with you the stories of the people and ideas behind our projects. So, we have dedicated this blog post to the origin story of the Wiikwemkoong Greenhouse for Change (for details of the project see here).

It began with a conversation in May 2017 between Evan and a contractor. Evan recalls this pivotal moment:

“I originally connected with a solar contractor who had completed a project in the community. After giving her one of the original Focus Forward pitches, I imagine the contractor must have thought “I just might know two people who could be crazy enough to hear you out.” In the end, she sent out a connecting email between myself and Jocelyn and Christianna from the Wiikwemkoong Development Commission and I guess they were crazy enough because they agreed to a phone call” -Evan Veryard, Founder FFFIY

Evan originally intended a quick, initial conversation about how Focus Forward was interested in developing a community project that youth can help build. He expected this conversation to last 20 minutes, at most, and then to leave Jocelyn and Christianna with some time to consider what could work well within the community. He was wrong. Two hours later, Jocelyn and Christianna were still detailing their ideas and sharing the initiatives already happening in the Wiikwemkoong community. For example, 80 raised garden beds constructed over the past few summers, agricultural workshops, and a new food share program that was set to start in August 2017. It was an inspiring phone call that was the start of a special partnership. As well, these creative projects already underway in Wiikwemkoong made it clear that the greenhouse Jocelyn and Christianna were suggesting would really complement the community goals.

During this discussion, Christianna and Jocelyn outlined their vision. Their idea was to build a greenhouse that could:

  • Be used in all four seasons;
  • Be solar powered and self-sufficient; and,
  • Hold a class of 15-20 students (in other words, about 26ft x 40ft – or, equivalent to 1 school bus wide by 3 school buses long).

As well, Christianna and Jocelyn already had an idea for where this greenhouse would be – a small south-facing hillside next to the local high school.

Remember, this phone call took place in May 2017. Since the Wiikwemkoong community already had a full schedule of projects – like their raised beds and agricultural workshops – planned for the summer, the greenhouse project was put on hold. This pause allowed Focus Forward’s team to fully consider Jocelyn and Christianna’s vision and how they could help bring it to life. Fast forward to the end of summer and Evan had caught Focus Forward’s Director of Operations, Cedric Pepelea, up to speed. Similarly, Cedric thought the challenge of developing a four-season, self-sufficient greenhouse of this size would be a real challenge –but a challenge we could overcome. But boy did his eyes light up at the idea of a buried greenhouse. So, he and the design team took this idea and ran with it.

Eventually, Cedric came back with the suggestion of building an ICF greenhouse. Now you may think that since the greenhouse was already being partially buried and running on solar power, we may be overdoing it by bringing in ICF technologies. Also, what on earth is ICF? For those of you that don’t know (much like Evan at the time), ICF stands for Insulated Concrete Forms, which are essentially large Lego blocks that are assembled into a structure and filled with concrete. However, the design team had done their research. Cedric explained that the Wiikwemkoong Development Commission already builds their new housing using ICF technologies. So not only was this solution extremely energy efficient and solved our heating problems but it also meant that local contractors were already trained with ICF technology and therefore able to complete the build with the students. As well, after conversations with the local energy planner, the design team decided to incorporate a wood-pellet boiler as the greenhouse heat source. It turns out the Wiikwemkoong community is phasing out electric heating in favor of biomass heating and are considering producing their own wood-pellets. So, while also serving as an affordable heat source, using a wood-pellet boiler also aligned with the economic plans of the community. After many phone calls discussing the above details and other design considerations with various community stakeholders, a final design was set.

Now we had to turn our attention to funding. Our grant writers and fundraisers went to work brainstorming how we could make this possible. It wasn’t a question of IF we can pull this off, but HOW can we pull this off. With this determination, 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 as possible, so we pulled out all the stops. We spread the word through all social media platforms, bribed university students with chocolate on Queen’s campus, and we even made a trip up to the Wiikwemkoong to participate in a community apple pressing event to raise awareness for the competition. In the end, we finished with just over 17,000 votes –enough to put us through to the top 15 and be reviewed by the panel.

Finally, in November, after a long-anticipated wait, we received a call: we had won the $50,000 prize. This was a huge first step for the project’s funding and really set things in motion. Since December we have been fortunate enough to receive various contributions, both materially and monetary. We received funding from the Government of Ontario through the Skills Catalyst fund, from OFNLP (a community-based funding opportunity), and also in-kind sponsorships from companies such as Amvic (ICF manufacturer) and Evonik Industries (glazing manufacturer). Finally, we are now able to move forward with the build this summer. With each contribution, the greenhouse started to become less of a design and more of an actualized product.

What started out as a conversation and exchange of ideas, turned into a unique design, and finally evolved into the Wiikwemkoong Greenhouse for Change. As facilitators, we help provide funding and resources to support the community’s vision. Yet, it is this partnership and the constant flow of communication with the Wiikwemkoong community that makes this greenhouse possible; it ensures that the design is tailored to the community’s specific needs and possesses the ability to grow with the community and help them achieve their long-term goals.

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 the desires of the Wiikwemkoong community.

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Anna Woodmass

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