For Immediate Release
August 17, 2023

Unique partnership brings fresh food to remote island community

Klemtu is a tiny community on a remote island more than 800 km northwest of Vancouver and, for years, its roughly 400 residents could count on two things to be as regular as the rain that falls there: the weekly arrival, by ferry, of an empty refrigerated trailer, later to be returned full of locally farmed fish for processing; and the somewhat less regular arrival of a truck stocked with fresh food and groceries.

While the former supported an important source of employment and income for members of the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation, the timing and frequency of the latter meant residents had limited access to fresh produce for most of each month.

That changed last year thanks to a unique partnership between the Kitasoo Xai’xais, BC Ferries, the transport company Aquatrans Distributors Inc. and Mowi Canada West, with which Kitasoo Seafoods works to produce salmon products.

Simply explained, the empty refrigerated trailers that previously made the 12-hour voyage from Port Hardy, on northern Vancouver Island, to Klemtu are now travelling full of fresh food.

And although making that arrangement happen wasn’t easy, it has had a powerful impact on the Klemtu community.

Kitasoo Xai'xais wanted healthy, quality food

For Isaiah Robinson, general manager of the Kitasoo Development Corporation and an elected Kitasoo Xai’xais councillor, the partnership to bring his community fresh food reinforces the Nation’s goals for its people.

“By providing healthy and good-quality food, the real goal is to continue supporting the Nation in its overall health and wellness,” Robinson says. “This is diversifying and trying to provide enough products. We’re really pushing to ensure the community is getting what they want and need.”

Where previously the fresh grocery deliveries came from one retailer, he says, Klemtu now receives food from a variety of distributors. 

“It makes a big difference for us to receive fresh food fast and consistently,” Robinson says. “The average shelf life of food we get up here is no different than what you would have down south in your fridge. We want to be providing the community with products that are going to last.”

Noting fresh fruit — including, now, berries — is especially popular in his community, he says he’s appreciative of the efforts required to make the weekly deliveries happen. “This continues to strengthen our relationship with our partners. Them providing the transport of these goods has been extremely beneficial.”

BC Ferries navigated challenges

For Anirudh Sharma, BC Ferries’ director, commercial operations, the question “How can we get fresh groceries or any other supplies to the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation?” was answered with another question: “Instead of sending an empty trailer, why don’t we load it up with all that they require?”

Making that happen required a pilot project that ran from March to December 2022 — ensuring all weather conditions were tested — and included a variety of obstacles to be overcome, from providing power for the reefer units on the long ferry trip without running a diesel engine; to ensuring the tractor on the Klemtu end was the right type to manoeuvre the trailer at the tricky T-intersection close to the warehouse ; to determining how best to load the trailer for weight distribution and meet the route’s gross vehicle weight requirements; to, most importantly, making sure the hostlers (BC Ferries staff who drove the trailers off the boat) were safely equipped and comfortable with the operation.

“There were a number of challenges that our vessel team had to navigate through but we were focused on finding solutions,” Sharma says. “One thing that really helped us get ready for it was going up to Klemtu in June of 2022 and doing a thorough task analysis with all the stakeholders involved.”

He says the partners took a break from the deliveries in January of this year to evaluate every aspect of the arrangement and make adjustments, then resumed in March.

Aquatrans made the food move

One of those partners is Aquatrans Distributors Inc., a transportation company that moves food, pharmaceuticals and goods for the aquaculture. General manager Ryan Brush says Aquatrans had previously worked with the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation and was keen to help. 

“You go to your grocery store and you expect it to be same-day fresh, next-day fresh,” he says. “But when you’re a boat-in community that gets serviced once a week, it’s impossible unless you have this incredibly unique system.”

Just as BC Ferries faced challenges to weekly deliveries, so did Aquatrans, he says, noting the company bought customized trailers to accommodate different power supplies and temperatures.

Brush lauded Mowi Canada West, which is covering the cost for most of the supply chain, and the Kitasoo Xai’xais for building up infrastructure to accommodate the trailers, saying, “Without them collaborating and getting involved, it would be almost impossible to make it happen. It really takes all of the unique parties to make it go.

“I think that it’s just the right groups coming together at the right time to make it happen. The advocacy of everybody, the selflessness of the whole group to making it happen has been pretty awesome.”

Adds the Nation’s Robinson: “The partnership between the four groups is really important. The unification and continued support of this endeavour by all will have a lasting impact on the community.”

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