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Get to know: Community Futures North Central Development

Community Futures North Central Development is an economic development corporation that supports communities in northern Manitoba by offering resources for entrepreneurship and economic development. Manitoba’s 16 Community Futures corporations deliver a variety of services including loans and technical and advisory services for small and medium-sized businesses, services targeted to youth and entrepreneurs with disabilities, and community economic development and planning. Jessie Golem spoke with Michelle Pruder about their Green Resilience Project community conversation that took place in northern Manitoba in January. 

Jessie Golem (JG): It’s great to meet you Michelle. The purpose of this interview is to have an informal conversation about the work that Community Futures North Central (CFNCD) is doing in northern Manitoba, and also to learn about your community conversation, and what you’re looking forward to from the discussion.

Michelle Pruder (MP): We actually had our conversation on Wednesday night. 

JG: How did it go? 

MP: It went well! We had fourteen people attend virtually. The original plan was to do an in-person conversation but there was a blizzard, so we ended up having the conversation virtually—which enabled us to involve a few more communities. We had people from Churchill, Thompson, Wabowden, and Flin Flon. The communities have differences too. For instance, Churchill has only railway and air access—there are no [access] roads. So it was good for the communities to share their experiences as well. These are all communities in northern Manitoba, eight hours north of Winnipeg, along the Hudson Bay. There were some business owners at the conversation who run tourism businesses. One individual [who took part] in the conversation does paddleboarding with beluga whales, so they see the challenges with climate change affecting their industries. If there are no polar bears and whales, there is no tourism, which is the biggest economic driving force.

JG: How stark is the decline in these animal populations? Are they seeing the decline in belugas and polar bears?

MP: Something that came up is that people at the Polar Bear International House have observed that the bears are getting smaller, especially the females. They’re also having fewer babies, maybe only having one cub instead of two or three. Since polar bears spend the majority of their time hunting on the ice, the loss of ice affects their ability to hunt. The person who runs the paddleboarding business said that because of the port, and ships coming in with oil companies, and increased shipping, that there aren’t as many beluga whales. They rely heavily on sound to understand their surroundings and communicate and the shipping has affected the sound, which can cause babies to be separated from their mothers.

JG: That’s really sad to think about. 

MP: We’re also seeing more animals up north that we wouldn’t normally see, like skunks, wood ticks and cougars. And harsher winters. We’re used to experiencing temperatures at -40 degrees in the winter, but it has never lasted for as long as it seems to now. It’s also hard for communities with access only by ice roads. Winters have been colder, but shorter, which affects how much time people have to get fuel and food to the communities to last for the year. So seeing the economic impact there is very interesting.

JG: I feel like the environmental impact creates a chain reaction of economic impacts. 

MP: For sure. It’s even affected home insurance. With bigger snowfalls causing structural damages, rates have risen, and some insurance companies won’t insure homes in northern Manitoba. People also talked about higher heating and air conditioning bills. We have a very extreme climate with hot summers and cold winters, but everything’s just getting colder and hotter. When my children were young we may have slept in the basement for three days in the entire summer, but these summers it might be a few days every week.

JG: It’s interesting hearing about the micro and personal impacts climate change is having on the economy. 

MP: One thing I learned is that a frozen lake makes for clearer skies to see the northern lights, which is a big draw for tourists. So if it doesn’t get cold enough to freeze the bay, it ends up being too cloudy to see the lights. 

JG: There’s a lot to unpack here. What were you looking forward to going into the conversation? Did it meet your expectations, and what did you learn? 

MP: I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it. I was a bit afraid the conversation may come off as too academic, but it ended up being very grassroots, with breakout rooms taking the questions and topics in all kinds of directions. It was a diverse group that ended up exceeding my expectations.

JG: I’ve heard other community groups say that they could have talked for hours. What were some of the main topics people were touching on?

MP: When it came to issues surrounding the environment, people are on board with personal responsibility. Like, they’ll recycle and make personal choices to minimize their environmental footprint. But they also recognize that there are bigger corporations and companies that want to come into this area, and there isn’t enough accountability for those big businesses and the pollution that they’re producing. 

JG: It’s one thing for individuals to be conscientious when recycling, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to these huge companies. There’s not enough accountability and the consequence is that we all suffer. 

MP: We talked about basic income, and I think there needs to be more education about that issue. I think a lot of people assume it’s another form of social assistance, but I recently read the study that came from the Mincome Program in Dauphin, Manitoba in the 1970s, which was fascinating. It showed kids finishing high school, and healthcare costs going down. I don’t think enough people realize that. 

JG: There’s a documentary called The Manitoba Story that has interviews with some of the [Dauphin] residents and tells a lot of their stories firsthand. Do you have any takeaways yet from the conversation, or an idea of what the next steps might be, and how that fits in with the vision and mission of Community Futures? 

MP: Community Futures is a government-funded nonprofit that is focused on economic development. We represent seventeen communities, with board members from each community who can represent and speak to their community’s needs. The focus is economic development, but we follow the lead of the board [regarding] which projects we get involved with. Oftentimes that looks like us granting business loans or resources, or community development projects. We came on to be a connector for all these communities to participate in the Green Resilience Project. Climate change may not be our primary focus, but since it affects economic development, we’re very interested in this conversation and what we can learn from it.   

JG: What are some of the immediate takeaways, or topics you’re hoping to explore more based on the conversation?

MP: A big takeaway was a need for communities to be connected and networking with one another. I think that’s a role we can definitely fill. For instance, [there is] a project in Churchill that is a greenhouse they have called Rocket Greens, which is situated on an old military rocket launch site. These days, it’s used to grow green vegetables that can be sold at the grocery stores all year around, as well as [distributed through] home delivery. This helps [deal] with the problem of the high costs of fresh produce in Northern communities. So why can’t other communities also have greenhouses? We can share this knowledge and these resources, which makes us all more resilient. I see our role as being a liaison of sorts to facilitate those connections.  

JG: Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. I’ve heard stories about the exorbitant costs of food in northern communities. 

MP: If we can communicate amongst each other about the solutions to these problems we’re affected by in the north, we can see where and how it grows and helps us. We can create policy change, and see what we can all do as a community. One of the participants in the conversation is a beekeeper in Thompson who wanted to share knowledge about how to set up beehives for different communities.   

JG: Totally. The knowledge-sharing and networking will only make everyone stronger. It’s so grassroots as well, which I love.  

MP: Our response to the effects of climate change is to ask, how can we be more self-sufficient, and be able to rely on our immediate communities rather than relying on big businesses or global conglomerates to protect us? One of the participants in the conversation said, people are intimidated by the size of the problem, but it doesn’t take us doing it perfectly, it takes us doing things in the short term, and trying to solve immediate problems, which can help bigger problems. Obviously this is a rough, and not-verbatim quote. But I really liked the attitude of not getting overwhelmed, but taking things one step at a time and helping with what skills, resources, and money we have. We saw how the government could pivot during Covid. We have the money and resources—and that the money needs to go into the communities. The middle class and the poor know how to do a lot with a little.

JG: I’ve talked to other communities who have expressed similar sentiments about the need to be self-sufficient. Globalization is a double-edged sword. It’s fantastic and wonderful to get resources and ideas from other countries and cultures, but the global network itself isn’t sustainable when treated as a local network. What are you looking forward to, moving forward from this conversation?

MP: I’m excited to organize the data and see the patterns, and see how everything and everyone is doing, especially looking at this data in the perspective of a post-Covid world. 

JG: I feel like we as a society have an incredible opportunity to change and build a better world in the post-Covid era. I’m glad we’re having these conversations. 

MP: The people joining the conversations are eager to talk, they’re champions on these issues in a way. 

More information about Community Futures can be found here.