This fall, people across Western Canada started discovering unique food products as part of a remarkable reconciliation initiative between Saskatoon’s Wanuskewin Heritage Park and Co-op food stores. Consumers can purchase a new line of bison food products—burgers, jerky, meat sticks and smokies—under the Co-op Gold label with a portion of the proceeds to support the cultural programs of Wanuskewin. The bison meat, sourced from a producer in southern Alberta, is processed in Saskatoon, and packaged with a design created by Ojibway-Dakota artist Linus Woods (@chilliefrybread on Instagram), who is from the Long Plain First Nation in Southern Manitoba.
Andrew McDonald, director of marketing and communications for Wanuskewin Heritage Park, says this initiative is about two years in the making and entirely possible because of the collaboration. “The fact that many of Co-op’s values focus on showcasing local producers and telling local stories is what worked so well with developing these products. This initiative is an extension of that and done in such a way that addresses the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Calls to Action, specifically No. 92.”
Approached by Wanuskewin for partnership, Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) was immediately intrigued with the prospect. Being a co-op, community development and local community investment is directly in line with their core values and store brand values. This was an outstanding way to have an impact right at the consumer level and see proceeds going to an important cause like Indigenous education programs.
FCL’s Store Brands Manager Sav Bellissimo describes the strategy and complexity of the project. “The hard part was connecting all the pieces together with the different suppliers and different parties. It was like putting a puzzle together,” he says. From working with bison farmers and abattoir, to finding meat processors and developing labels all sourced locally, this project was no small feat.
“This was a multi-layered story with Wanuskewin and Indigenous cultures being the priority,” says Bellissimo. “It was important for us to use a local Indigenous artist to celebrate Indigenous culture and art and also highlight the importance of the bison and their kinship with Indigenous peoples. We’d love to do more projects along these lines, especially with Indigenous communities.”
Wanuskewin is a national heritage site located five minutes from Saskatoon in the Opimihaw Valley. The land has been a gathering place of Northern Plains Indigenous people for more than 6,400 years. Modern-day tourists flock to the park to enjoy its unparalleled education and demonstrations of Indigenous culture, heritage and arts. “I don’t think there is another tourism entity or non-profit in the country that has done a partnership quite like this,” says McDonald. “We are shining a spotlight on Indigenous artists and the story and connection of bison to the Northern Plains Indigenous people. In turn, we can do more cultural programming here at Wanuskewin.”
McDonald explains that the decision to feature bison meat was intentional. Bison are essential to Wanuskewin for ceremonial and educational purposes. While the meat does not originate from the park, it does represent the importance of bison with Northern Plains Indigenous people. “Bison are a staple for food, shelter, clothing, and a way of life,” he notes. “Through the packaging we are able to tell people about that connection and why Wanuskewin was such an important meeting place for thousands of years. The awareness we can create and how we can elevate the profile of Northern Plains Indigenous culture through these different avenues of storytelling is remarkable.”
Wanuskewin is expected to receive UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 2025. This is a tremendous undertaking and a true community effort to achieve. McDonald is proud of this initiative and anticipates generating interest across Western Canada by reaching a new group of potential guests. “Perhaps there are folks in British Columbia who have not heard of Wanuskewin but they love our burgers. Or perhaps they weren’t aware that there will be a new UNESCO site in the country. This is a great way for us to raise our profile across Western Canada.”
Linus Woods’ artistic style is vibrant and dynamic—just what was being sought for this project. McDonald says all parties share a common goal and that “this is truly a collaboration of the prairie provinces, not only in terms of how the products are produced and pulled together, but about how the stories are shared and how we’re creating awareness, understanding and appreciation.”
Woods drew his own inspiration for the project from his grandmother who taught him about their relatives and ancestors who were known for their buffalo hunting ability. “An ancient buffalo skull was found under my grandmother’s house. She taught me stories about the buffalo and I pass that oral tradition onto youth today. So being part of this project is valued because it’s like distributing buffalo meat,” states Woods. “I was drawn to it because it had an aspect of passing on tradition.”
This “reconciliation in action” has been well-received in the weeks since the products launched at the end of October, and McDonald says plans for an expanded product line are already in the works. “A partnership like this is unprecedented. We hope that it will be well received. We hope that people like the idea of supporting our Indigenous-led nonprofit in this way.”