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Small fruits and climate change: Innu women take action

A plot of the blueberry field located near the village will be reserved for community production, particularly for Niminima. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

You have to be called Yvette Bellefleur, to dream of berries! The Innu have ambitions for their community as great as the vast horizons of the North Shore. “We want to create a berry processing house here in Mingan,” explains the project manager for the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit. We want to make blueberry jam, cloudberry butter, red seed butter and fruit tarts that we could sell in shops in the community, in our region and in schools.”

Under the aegis of the band council, this processing house would be managed by the community enterprise Niminima, which means small fruits in the Innu language, whose mission is to create employment for the women of the community. “And we won’t add a lot of sugar, because there is a lot of diabetes in the communities,” specifies Yvette Bellefleur.

However, this dream comes up against reality, namely the growing scarcity of small local fruits such as red seed, a tiny fruit rich in antioxidants that resembles cranberries, and cloudberry, a berry with a tart taste widely consumed in Scandinavian countries.

The dwindling harvests are worrying the community, says Sylvie Basile, organizational development advisor for the Council.

Bet on blueberries

In view of this portrait, we will therefore focus first on blueberries. A plot of the blueberry field located near the village will be reserved for community production, particularly for Niminima.

Currently, the community is developing a business plan for the transformation house and is looking for funding. This summer, recipes will be tested in the kitchen of a former daycare centre, and this fall, a group of six women will take training in food processing. The first products are expected to go on sale in the summer of 2023.

The red seed and the cloudberry, which will be provided by harvesters from all the Innu communities, will possibly be exploited later, because many questions remain about their rarity and the effects of climate change. “What is it that, more and more, in the north, there are fewer berries? We said to ourselves that we had to find answers”, continues Sylvie Basile.

Understand to act

It is for this reason that alongside its berry processing project, the Innu community responded to a call from the federal government for projects created and led by Aboriginal communities and related to climate change.

In partnership with the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Sustainable Development Institute, in April 2021 the community obtained the necessary funding to hire “observers” from Ekuanitshit, Nutashkuan and Unamen Shipu.

Since last summer, they have been examining and photographing berry plants in Nitassinan, the Innu ancestral territory. Their mission is to collect a range of data on the state of the plants in order to assess the effects of global warming on this precious raw material.

“Throughout the summer, in the three communities, one or two people went to observe the plants several times a week. They looked at their condition, if they were in flower or in fruit and they also documented their health, their abundance, if there were pollinating insects around, if they had been grazed on or crushed”, explains Coralie Gauthier, in charge of Institute’s climate change project.

This work continued daily during the winter of 2022 with the taking of temperatures on the ground and the measurement of the snow cover. “We want to make the link between these elements, specifies Coralie Gauthier. Plants are known to need protection from frost during the winter. If there is not enough snow, fruit production may already be compromised. We look at all the parameters throughout the year.”

This approach will allow Innu women to better understand what is happening to the Nitassinan bays so that they can then find solutions that will ensure the sustainability of the future Niminima processing house, Catherine Potvin explains to me. The professor in the Department of Biology at McGill University, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and the Tropical Forest (Tier 1), is one of the project partners as a researcher- advice.

“If the lack of pollinators is a problem, we can buy beehives or plant flowers that will attract them. If it is a problem of snow cover, we can put straw or leaves to protect the plants during the winter, as we do with roses. In the worst case, if the climate is too disrupted, we can also transplant species that are too hot or for which the climate is uncertain further north”, illustrates the researcher.

greener community

While waiting for the results of the current study, Ekuanitshit remains in action for the climate. Yvette Bellefleur regularly publishes videos on social networks to raise public awareness of the best methods for picking berries. To compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions emitted during the research project, the community will plant more trees on its territory. In addition, the people of Ekuanitshit have adopted compost, which is now a common practice, they organize sustainable development fairs and they are preparing an ecological house project. “We want to become one of the greenest Aboriginal communities in Canada. Nothing less!” says Sylvie Basile.

This script is part of The Canadian Press’ Local Journalism Initiative program

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