Gaëtane Carignan

My dad is an Italian immigrant. Their family of seven worked hard to ensure there was food on the table, and a big part of that was an extensive garden. According to my dad, their entire yard was garden and it was my Nonno’s hard work and dedication that made it flourish. This spring, I understood my Nonno’s need to till and plant and grow. I have been experimenting with gardening for the last ten years but it wasn’t until the onset of COVID-19 that it felt like a necessity. This fall when I learned about the Fernie Food Action Strategy, a bit of that weight was lifted, recognizing we are not alone. 

Dawn Deydey, Wildsight Elk Valley and Gaëtane Carignan, Community Energy Association are the project coordinators of the Fernie Food Action Strategy. This project “envisions a resilient local food system in the Elk Valley, and seeks to work with stakeholders to identify key actions that will alleviate some of the risk to Fernie’s food supply in the medium and long-term.” Both Dawn and Gaëtane have a history of championing local food and food security. I had the opportunity to speak with Gaëtane on her property, where we drank coffee and our daughters played with the goats and pigs and sampled sunflower seeds in the garden.

Gaëtane shares with me that she actually grew up right here and never expected to come back to Fernie. With a background in environmental science and agriculture, she just didn’t think there was the opportunity. After studying Environmental Science in Lethbridge, followed by a Masters in Agriculture in Nova Scotia, Gaëtane wanted to use this education and apply it to sustainable agriculture, “which has morphed into regenerative… not only neutral but having a positive impact through farming. Building the soil, ethical treatment of animals… that was really the draw,” she says. It wasn’t until she took 
a two-week Permaculture and Design Course that she was able to pull all of the pieces of her education together. “It helped me to see the bigger picture.”

Gaëtane first used her education and knowledge working for the Ministry of Forests and Range until she felt pulled to volunteer for a two-year post in Hondurus as a food security advisor at an NGO. It was here she met her husband, Umberto. “His father invited me to do a farm tour, and Umberta was my guide. And that was it!”

Umberto and Gaëtane moved back to Canada, and eventually landed in Cranbrook where she worked as an ecologist for a bit. They were looking for houses when Gaëtane’s parents posed a proposition: we have all this land and too much to do, why don’t we renovate the house and share child care, chores and gardening? It was an easy decision for them, moving to Fernie and raising their daughter Jade in the very home Gaëtane grew up in. 

That summer, their family attended Wapiti. Gaëtane had been trying to figure out how she was going to continue her career in Fernie, and she expressed this to her good friend Heather Kerr. “I need to meet the environmental people.” Heather responded, “You need to meet Megan Lohman, who I’m here with. Want me to pimp you out to her?” A month later, Gaëtane had a job as a Community Energy Coordinator. “It was a miracle, and a dream job in Fernie, BC.” 

Gaëtane is now a manager there, helping local government with their energy and omissions profiles. “We look into where their carbon emissions are coming from and help them to figure out what to do with them.” Another new and big project is the Organic Infrastructure program, “a coordinated approach with the Columbia Valley, Central East Kootenay and Elk Valley, building compost processing facilities for residential composting.” Yes, I can’t help but say as she shares this. 

This spring, Gaëtane was shocked to learn people were hoarding toilet paper. “Instead of rice and beans and seed.” It made her realize how many of us are not aware of the fragility of our food chain. “The majority of people rely on the grocery stores.” A food security group began on Facebook, and Gaëtane was asked to be an administrator. From this group, they realized they needed a broad approach - assessing barriers to accessing or growing local food in the Fernie area, and looking to other communities to see what is already being done. “This is where the strategy came from. Dawn already had seed funding through Wildsight which was used to get through community engagement,” Gaëtane says. With a letter of support from the City of Fernie, and additional funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC they are armed to continue their work on this strategy. 

Currently, Fernie residents can support this initiative by taking the survey online. “The more that participate, the better,” says Gaëtane. “We are also hosting two online engagement sessions and would like to present to council on our findings, with a hope to collaborate. The real motivation is to not just make a report, rather to identity tangible actions and get them done.” 

Gaëtane’s personal goal is to better understand the different levels of the food system, from the provincial level to the municipal level to the individual level and how as a collective we can implement strategies in one community, and share with others so they can adopt what works for them. “Here are a few key action items, what people want and need in other communities with similar context and have done successfully, with great bylaws and clear guidelines. Setting people up for success, let’s move towards that!”

You didn’t have to ‘grow up Italian’ to notice the addition of gardens and green houses in backyards and shared spaces this spring and summer. Clearly, the Food Action Strategy is of great importance 
to our community - let’s get involved and support this initiative. For more information and to take the survey, visit 

1. When did you first arrive in the Valley and what brought you here?
I was born here after my parents moved to the area in the 60s from Saskatchewan.

2. Who did you first meet?
Growing up, the Browns and the Cannings were neighbours who were like adoptive families to me. I spent a lot of time with both, riding horses, hanging out on the farms, running feral.

3. Do you remember your first general impression of Fernie?
I haven’t always appreciated the gifts of this place like I do now. Each season has a unique, intense natural beauty.

4. What keeps you here?
We are working to create greater and greater abundance in the garden, food forest, pasture, and in the weedy margins that feed the bees, mice and magpies. Every year yields something new, but in a cold climate like ours we have to wait patiently to enjoy the results of our efforts.

5. Do you have a favourite Fernie pastime?
Growing food and dreaming up integrated design elements for our permaculture farm are my favourite past-times. 

6. What time of the year do you love most in Fernie, and why?
I love late summer and fall for the satisfaction of sharing the tasty harvest with friends and family.

7. Where do you see or hope to see Fernie in five years?
More people will be able to access local food, participate in urban agriculture, and there will be greater food system resiliency overall.

8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals?
My family wakes up to open the greenhouse, feed the animals, and harvest a bit of whatever is in season from the garden or food forest.

9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you.
I would rather someone else cook the food I grow.

10. Quote to live by: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.