A truck loaded with boxes of fresh local apples and Christmas gifts left the Columbia Brewery last week as volunteers and onlookers waved goodbye. The goods were headed to Shamattawa, Manitoba (1300 km NE of Winnipeg), one of the poorest and most violent communities in Canada. There is no industry or natural resources to support the community, and suicide is rampant. Because Shamattawa is a fly-in community, groceries are extremely expensive and most families are not able to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Poor nutrition is a standard and 80% of the population lives with diabetes. In a community where milk cost $14.29 a gallon, apples are a luxury that most cannot afford. None of this sat well with Muriel Buhr when she first heard about Shamattawa eight years ago from a friend’s son who worked there as an RCMP officer.
“That first year, my friends and family and I were determined to send up a tonne of apples to the children in Shamattawa,” says Buhr. “The next day, we contacted orchardists in the valley and immediately were offered trees from which to pick and pack apples. We contacted Creston Parcel who, in turn, connected us to Overland West Freight. They offered to generously truck our fruit to Winnipeg for free. We then contacted Perimeter Aviation in Winnipeg who said that they often fly in donations to communities in Northern Manitoba. They flew in our apples within two weeks.”
In 2010, gifts started streaming in to accompany the seven-foot high pallets of apples. “A nurse brought some gifts to the hospital and asked if I could send them to the kids in Shamattawa for Christmas”, says Buhr. “Those gifts sat on my desk and before long the staff all decided that there was enough community support to send more than just those three items. After talking to our site manager, she generously offered us a downstairs room to store the gifts as they came to the hospital, and we just went ahead and put the word out via our hospital staff to the community.”
Within three weeks, they collected about 1000 gifts – toys, games, clothing, boots and personal care items – and again contacted Overland West Freight (for shipping Creston to Calgary), Ridsdale Transportation (Calgary to Winnipeg), Gardewine North (Winnipeg to Thompson) and Perimeter Aviation (Thompson to Shamattawa) who, once again, donated shipping costs. The week before Christmas, Officer Ford distributed the gifts to 169 homes. “Creston Parcel was an amazing resource. Richard, Arlene and Taylor Hills are such wonderful people, as was John Kettle and now Tanya Wall and Columbia Basin Trust and the Area B Regional District. The staff at Overwaitea and Extra Foods pitched in, as did the staff at Gleaners, and Gleaners and Friends. Ken, Val and Cathy Shukin at Shukin Orchards offered much-needed space to store donations.” Shukin Orchard warehouse became a year-round storage centre for the Shamattawa project. The Shukins continue to donate apples and assist in sorting.
In 2013, Buhr’s group contacted Labatt’s Columbia Brewery to help with shipping. “Their ongoing support has been such a huge help,” says Buhr. “We couldn’t do this without them. General Manager Scott Stokes and the Brewery staff – including Lisa Harrison and Brady Peacock – have been very supportive. I’d also like to thank all the individuals and families from Yahk to Riondel who thought to donate gifts to the children, either toys or warm clothing. Without those donators and the volunteers who sort, pack, box and label, this project would be impossible.”
This year, with only a few days before Christmas, Suzana Bulhoes of Air Canada got in on the action and was able to organize several pairs of earbuds for the students in Shamattawa.
Though Buhr has never visited Shamattawa, she feels a connection to the people there. “It’s hard to believe that there are people living in Canada that don’t have access to reasonably-priced fresh produce – that there are children having to tie layers of clothing on with string to stay warm. We set out to give kids some fresh fruit and a small gift to help their parents out, and hopefully make their day a little better knowing that others think of them.”