Sustainability, food sovereignty and communal healing in Maskwacis

ChooseWell Champion Kacey Yellowbird is helping spearhead a pilot project for hunting in Treaty 6. Working with researchers at the University of Alberta, Kacey and his fellow hunters are bringing in animal heads to be tested for Chronic Wasting Disease, providing valuable data and ensuring their meat is disease-free. The project aims to benefit both the researchers and the community, ensuring Indigenous hunters and leaders are involved in every aspect of the program. This partnership furthers the successful community freezer program Kacey has been running on Samson Cree Nation for over a decade. “It’s humbling to know that you’re providing sustainability through food to your community,” says Kacey.

By Anna Schmidt, 2023

Growing up, Kacey Yellowbird remembers the smell of tea brewing, the taste of freshly-baked bannock and the excitement of pushing aside furniture in his grandparents’ kitchen.

His grandfather, an accomplished hunter, would come in with fresh game. “They would put the meat in the middle and everybody would grab a chunk and start breaking it down. It was a shared experience,” he recalls.

Today, Kacey brings that same opportunity to his community of Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis. There, he runs a hunting and community freezer program and manages Samson Youth and Sport Development, serving the nation’s over 4,400 youth. Kacey leads guided hunts following traditional Cree practices and teaches youth to break down the animals, stocking freezers with fresh meat for residents in need and local Elders. A Communities ChooseWell grant helped launch the freezer program in 2011.

“We lay out the meat in front of our community members and our youth. It’s very fulfilling. And it’s humbling to know that you’re providing sustainability through food to your community,” says Kacey.

Now, the project has a new partner to help ensure Maskwacis maintains access to that safe, sustainable food source — and the food sovereignty that comes with it. In 2019, Kacey and the hunting program partnered with researchers from the University of Alberta on a project to track Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disorder that affects deer, elk and moose. 

The disease had been spreading west in recent years, and the project created a process for Kacey and his fellow hunters in Maskwacis to turn in animal heads that researchers test for CWD. The researchers then confirm the meat is disease free so the hunters can safely share with their families and community.

“We have accessibility to the labs at the university. We’re spearheading this for all of Treaty 6,” explains Kacey. “These two programs just parallel each other so well. We’re getting the animals on the frontline and providing the heads so they can gather data.”

The project is rooted in community-based monitoring — meaning community members are involved in all stages of the work, and that results are beneficial for both the community and the researchers. Maskwacis became the first pilot site for the project after meetings between chiefs of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations, Treaty 8 First Nations, the Treaty 7 First Nations chiefs’ Association and the University of Alberta. 

At the U of A, the work is supported by Cree student Robbie Potts and researcher Hannah Cunningham, under the supervision of Dr. Brenda Parlee, a professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences. The project is also now part of Tracking Change, a multi-year, federally-funded research program.

Beyond ensuring disease-free meat, the partnership drives important wildlife research and supports the longevity of the hunting and well-being programs that provide mental, emotional and spiritual connections to culture and community.

This kind of collaboration between a large research university and an Indigenous community is significant, says Janet Naclia, the director of people and programs for Alberta Recreation and Parks Association, ChooseWell’s parent organization. 

“The U of A is actively engaging with an Indigenous community to take the lead in a traditional way,” says Janet. “That’s the way Western institutions need to go — and not only because of reconciliation, but if they want to be sustainable and vital in the future. The pandemic showed us that things like food security are very fragile. Taking steps from both a Western and Indigenous perspective to address that is really key.”

In recent months, more community members have learned about and started using the community freezer as they grapple with rising inflation and high grocery costs, says Kacey. 

“Having the ability to give back helps build the sense of community because people know that there are others who care. This is one way of showing your love for your community. This program touches so many aspects of healing.”