Amazing Ideas in Action: Neechi Commons

When it comes to food security for low income neighbourhoods, all kinds of solutions are put forward.  Most of them will remain forever theoretical, however, simply because the funding and/or support don’t exist to see them through.

That’s why Neechi Commons is such a remarkable place to visit.  Its founders have managed to take theoretical ideas and make them reality.  Located north of downtown Winnipeg, the newly-opened Commons is a bright, spacious brick building dedicated to providing the surrounding neighbourhood with food, resources, and a place to convene. 

Neechi first began in 1990 as a small grocery cooperative providing local residents with affordable, healthy food; this part of Winnipeg was known as a ‘food desert,’ meaning there were no proper grocery stores in the area (similar to the Saskatoon neighbourhood where Station 20 West was founded).  In these areas, many lower income residents don’t have the means of getting to other parts of town to bring back groceries, so they end up purchasing food from small corner stores.  These stores are usually stocked with processed foods and lack fresh fruit or vegetables.

Based around the principles of an Aboriginal owned and operated worker cooperative, the store was called Neechi, which means friend/sister/brother in Cree and Ojibwa. 

Recently, it underwent an ambitious expansion with the launch of Neechi Commons, a much larger facility featuring a supermarket, bakery, fruit and vegetable courtyard, restaurant, and store selling locally-made Aboriginal crafts, leather-work, and paintings. 

We had the opportunity to meet with Chef Talia Syrie, who was hired to plan and open the Commons’ restaurant, ‘Tansi.’  The eatery specializes in local Aboriginal cuisine, showcasing foods such as a wild rice, wild blueberries, bannock, and bison, as well as incorporating the agricultural ‘Three Sisters’ of the First Nations’ diet: corn, beans, and squash.

Talia first made a name for herself in Winnipeg with her restaurant The Tallest Poppy, which she opened after years of working at camps (including tree planting!) around the country.  She’d never actually worked in a restaurant before opening one, which Dana and I both found to be an ambitious and inspiring move.  The Tallest Poppy was a massive success, serving thousands of loyal customers over the years, and helping to revitalize the neighbourhood in which it opened.  Despite its success, Talia recently closed her restaurant, as she wanted to give her full attention to opening Tansi at Neechi Commons.  We found it admirable that rather than spreading herself thinly between projects, Talia chose to give up a hugely successful business in order to focus on a new one.

Eventually, she’ll hand Tansi over to a First Nations chef to run it, and then will launch into something new.  What that will be exactly has yet to be decided, but for locals stricken with the loss of The Tallest Poppy, there’s good news - she’ll be staying in Winnipeg!  

We stayed at Tansi for lunch and enjoyed a bison burger, wild rice croquettes, and wild rice pudding with wild blueberries.  How could we say no to so much wild? 

For those of you who work in food security, or for anyone who just wants to be inspired, have a look at the work Neechi Commons is doing.  And if you’re lucky enough to be in Winnipeg, drop by for lunch one day and see what they’re cooking.  A huge thanks to Chef Talia for taking the time to chat with us - we both look forward to seeing what’s next for her….

Before we left Neechi Commons, Talia told us to check out Manito Ahbee, a huge annual festival that “celebrates Indigenous culture and heritage to unify, educate, and inspire.”  We watched some of the pow wow held downtown at the MTS Centre; hundreds of dancers were there, in the finest, most elaborate regalia I’ve ever seen.  Men, women, girls, and boys competed in various categories, and we could have watched all day.  It was remarkable.

Winnipeg continues to charm, as The Decemberists always do....