Community helps North one container at a time


St. Thomas More parish's youth group paints a Sea-Can container to be filled with food essentials for the North.
Photo courtesy of Peter Ouelette

A beautifully painted shipping container filled with non-perishable food and goods is headed for a permanent home beside Holy Name of Mary Church in a remote Arctic community.

And Grace Blake couldn’t be happier.

“Families here, especially during this COVID time, have been very much in need. We are an isolated community so we don’t get the type of groceries we need on a regular basis,” said Blake, a Gwich’in elder and lifelong parishioner of Holy Name of Mary Church in Tsiighetchic, located in the Inuvik region of the Northwest Territories.


Grace Blake

The 200-person community does not have an airport and relies on ferries for access in summer or two ice bridges in the winter. In the spring and fall, the road into town is closed due to break-up and freeze-up.

“Right now we are isolated from the highway because the McKenzie River is flowing with ice and it’s like that for about a month and a half in the spring and fall, so we have no way of going to bigger centres to shop; whatever we can get from our store plus the free donations help,” said Blake, a recently widowed mother of eight and grandmother to 21 children.

Holy Name of Mary Church is located in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, which is twinned with the Edmonton Archdiocese.

This is the eighth hand-painted shipping container to serve nine northern communities as part of the North of 60 Project, an initiative of the Society of St Vincent de Paul Western Region.

And this is the second time Emma Wang and her friends in the Anchor youth group at St. Thomas More Parish in Edmonton have hand-painted a mural on the side of one of these shipping containers.

“I hope it helps other people and their faith. We don’t usually do these kinds of service projects; it was really fun,” said Wang, a Grade 11 student.

Seven high school youth met for eight two-hour blocks over three weeks to paint the mural. Two years ago the same youth group painted a shipping container that was sent to Fort Good Hope, N.W.T.

St. Thomas More parishioner Sara Dimitri facilitated both times.

“God is truth, beauty and goodness and hopefully by providing some beauty on the sea container it can be a reflection of God’s beauty,” Dimitri said.

The Tsiighetchic community asked the youth group to paint a portrait of Our Lady of Lourdes, the namesake of the parish, and Holy Name of Mary Church on a cliff overlooking the river valley.

The sea container is slated to arrive in Tsiighetchic in August. It will travel by truck from Edmonton to Hay River, then transfer onto a barge, which travels down the McKenzie River, emptying into the Beaufort Sea. The Northwest Territories government donated the transportation.

Food prices in communities north of the 60th parallel can be exorbitant and further enshrine communities in poverty, which is a major concern in the north.


Sister Fay Trombley, based in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., helped start the North of 60 Project.
Photo courtesy of The Catholic Register

The North of 60 Project began 10 years ago with the help of the late Eileen Orysiuk of Calgary and Sister Fay Trombley, who is based in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T, to provide food security to northern communities. Sister Trombley, a Sister of Charity of the Immaculate Conception, is a former professor at Newman Theological College in Edmonton.

“We only have two rules in our program,” said Peter Ouellette, the team lead for the North of 60 project. “Once we start with a community we will not pull out, so we have to continue to develop the rapport and work toward systemic change. The other rule is we don’t ship anything unless they ask for it.”

In a normal year the North of 60 team would solicit churches for food donations to bring them alongside the service project, but that was not possible during COVID. Powdered milk, dehydrated fruits and vegetables and cooking oil were donated from wholesalers or purchased with funds donated from the Knights of Columbus or SSVP chapters.

The goods inside the shipping container should last for a year and will be shared between Tsiighetchic and Fort McPherson, a hamlet about 60 kilometres west. This sea container will remain permanently next to Holy Name of Mary Church as a storage facility.

“We are not trying to feed the community, we are giving the community some security. Each of the communities have their own stores and we have no intention of competing with those stores. In the event the airplanes can’t fly for three weeks due to terrible weather then there is nothing on the shelves,” said Ouellette.

Blake said the general store in Tsiighetchic does not stock fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis year round and this is something she’d like to see change, possibly through government programs.

The traditional diet of the Gwich’in largely consists of fresh white fish, cariboo and moose meat. Growing up Blake ate a variety of berries and wild rhubarb in the summer.

Blake said she and her community are grateful for the effort of the SSVP Edmonton chapter and the North of 60 project.

“The St Vincent de Paul group sends us dried goods and foods that are not perishable and people truly appreciate that.”