The rise and fall of the Northern Farm Training Institute
The Northern Farm Training Institute is no longer in business. How did an NWT vision for agricultural education rise to prominence, then fade so abruptly?
The farm that served as a base for the institute – also known as NFTI, often pronounced “Nifty” – appeared near Hay River’s Paradise Valley in 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s eighth year in office.
On an August visit to the Northwest Territories, Harper visited a community garden in Fort Smith and was given a tour by the president of the Territorial Farming Association, Jackie Milne.
Under her supervision and with the financial support of the territorial government, farm technicians had been teaching elementary school students and Indigenous community members how to garden, and the association ran training workshops for the town’s growers and small-scale farmers.
Later that day, Harper had a surprise announcement: a government with a reputation for austerity would give $2 million to the Territorial Farming Association to help build a permanent campus for a farm school. With his support, the organization was able to lease its 260-acre plot of land from the Town of Hay River.
The concept behind this school held an appeal that transcended party politics: an immersive training campus that doubled as a fully operational farm, where people from all walks of life could learn how to wrangle produce from northern soil.
The farm training institute would be the embodiment of grant-getting ecology-nerd buzzwords like regenerative agriculture, permaculture design and food sovereignty, tempered with a scrappy sense of northern self-sufficiency and grit.
A unique idea takes hold
By the time the project had a name, the Northern Farm Training Institute and Jackie Milne were synonymous.
The federal funding was first allocated to the Territorial Farming Association, a league of Hay River farmers that dated back to 1973. As president of the association, Milne took the lead on the new farming school alongside other projects.
In a conversation with Cabin Radio in March, Milne said she was directed by the Town of Hay River to form a new society that was exclusively devoted to NFTI.
“I was forced to,” Milne said. “I have no idea why.”
A representative from the Town of Hay River said they were unable to provide further context on whether or not this direction occurred, or why.
NFTI became its own society, with Milne as president, in October 2014.
In a few short months, Milne – with less than a year of formal training in agriculture management – had become the head of a multi-million-dollar mission to equip small, northern communities with the skills and training to own the means of their food production and minimize reliance on expensive southern grocery chains. At the time, NFTI was the largest land-based farm in the Northwest Territories.
The Territorial Farming Association never filed another notice of directors or submitted another financial statement, and it was involuntarily dissolved by the territorial government in 2019.
“NFTI was a huge project, with, you know, big funding, starting something from scratch, so I’m sure it was taking a lot of her time,” said France Benoit, a Yellowknife-based food producer, who was a board member at the time.
In the decade that followed, grants and funding poured in to support NFTI, as did partnership opportunities and accolades. Contributors to the NFTI project included Milne’s husband, Graham Milne, director Helen Green, and operations manager Kim Rapati, but the institute’s face was almost always its founder and president.
Neither Green nor Rapati returned requests for comment.
It was Milne who received a Meritorious Service Decoration from the governor general for her work with NFTI, Milne who appeared on United Nations panels and gave talks on sustainable development, Milne who was featured in media coverage about NFTI, and Milne who was quoted when academics wrote papers on food sovereignty in the North.
“NFTI was Jackie and Jackie was NFTI,” said Ben Mogl-Maclean, who worked as a garden manager for NFTI in 2018.
In the summers, NFTI became a magnet for enterprising environmentalists, budding anarchists and university students looking for an excuse to travel by appearing on volunteer work networks such as WWOOF and WorkAway.
“There were many, many people there, from all over the world,” said Keegan Hind, who volunteered at NFTI in 2019. “People would be asking us, why are there so many people from Germany, Japan, Austria, all coming to work on this tiny little farm?”
Hind also saw people come from communities across the Northwest Territories to learn agricultural and gardening skills.
Milne worked with the Tłı̨chǫ Government to hold training workshops in Whatì, Gamètì, Behchokǫ̀ and Wekweètı̀, and worked with members of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation and Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation to host youth at the farm and coordinate events.
Milne, who identifies as Métis, said Indigenous empowerment and Indigenous food sovereignty were central to her work at NFTI.
“It was really cool to see people get paid to come to the farm from pretty remote areas and learn, you know, some pretty rootsy awesome stuff,” said Hind.
The institute also provided tools and equipment for those who came to learn before starting their own farming projects.
“We would be sending people back to Wekweètı̀ with, like, a wheelbarrow chock-full of different stuff, as much as Air Tindi would allow,” said Hind.
During those years, NFTI’s public communications were all about developing an approach to agriculture centred around northern climate, economy and infrastructure. In a funding application to the NWT government from 2017-18, obtained by Cabin Radio, the organization details plans to expand into agricultural research, such as exploring the suitability of silvopasture (the blended management of livestock, forage plants and trees) in northern boreal forest, and keeping bison and reindeer as livestock.
Yet some people who spent time at NFTI say their experience was complicated.
“It kind-of left you with a spinning feeling, if you were there for any length of time,” said Mogl-Maclean.
“You weren’t able to grasp what the long-term or even medium-term goal was any more. There were all of these ongoing projects – like, we’re going to expand the farm, get this shredder to make food for the animals – but always couched in this way where we’re also battling against the evil establishment and changing the world.”
Asked to elaborate, Mogl-Maclean hesitated.
It wouldn’t be fair to call NFTI a cult, he finally said. But there were cult-like elements.
“When you have a person who is so in their own world, so motivated, not really appearing to take any input from the outside, and also has these narratives and stories – that no one else seems to see or understand, right? – that’s really kind-of disorienting. It makes you start thinking: what is going on here?”
In some ways, that sensation can be explained by the scope and sheer ambition of the project: running workshops and hosting events, teaching agricultural skills to delegations from communities across the NWT, supervising and finding meaningful roles and tasks for an army of untrained volunteers, all alongside the famously labour-intensive grind of working fields and caring for more than 200 cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens – as well as a solitary yak.
It may also be partly attributed to Milne’s vision of what NFTI was and what it was up against. People who spent time at NFTI believe she saw the project not just as a series of training sessions funded by a patchwork of grants, but as a statement about survival and self-determination in a world increasingly shaped by corporate interests, and threatened by what she saw as controlling governance.
“Most of the elected people are good-hearted,” said Milne. “It’s the bureaucrats.”
A sense of conspiracy
During the pandemic, Milne developed a reputation in the territory and beyond as an outspoken critic of government intervention, voicing opposition to Covid-19 vaccines and political decisions that she felt undermined small farmers.
In 2021, following an incident in which the territorial government shut down the farm’s roadside stand – it did not have a food safety permit and had refused to undergo a health inspection – an institute representative, possibly Milne, took to NFTI’s social media.
The post, which said that NFTI was being prevented from selling produce to the community, went viral, and was shared more than 9,000 times.
At the time, the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services (which controls food inspections) said: “We do want to stress that we are willing and available to work with any vendor or producer to help them comply with food health and safety regulations.”
The permit NFTI didn’t have is free for any not-for-profit to acquire. But an institute representative writing in the post’s comments said the issue wasn’t about the cost – it was about defending personal food independence.
The farm’s page became increasingly politically charged. While most of its content remained farming-related and explored broader concerns about the future of global food production, the institute also promoted content from far-right outlet Rebel News and controversial writer and speaker Jordan Peterson (who is opposed to the consumption of vegetables).
In 2020, Milne was charged with violating the territory’s Public Health Act by breaking Covid-19 restrictions. The case never came to court and the charge was ultimately stayed.
Trouble in Paradise
In October 2022, neighbours of the farm told Cabin Radio Milne appeared to be preparing to leave town, a claim she denied.
The institute stopped submitting financial statements and filing paperwork about its board in 2020, territorial records suggest.
All of the previous board members on that last filing, including Leon Bouchard, Helen Green, Robert Bromley and Roy Fabian, were contacted for this report. None were willing to go on the record.
According to Jacob Robinson, who worked as an agriculture coordinator for NFTI from 2019 to 2021, most of the board members quit during the time of his employment.
Documents shared with Cabin Radio by Milne show a staggering amount of paperwork and approvals required to keep the non-profit running each year. The GNWT required NFTI to provide separate funding applications for each region of programming, meaning separate applications and documentation were requires for the Dehcho, South Slave, North Slave, Sahtu and Inuvik. On the farm, each task was broken down into a separate project with its own financing, leading to a maze of contribution agreements.
Correspondence between the GNWT and NFTI obtained by Cabin Radio shows moments of friction between the organization and its funders over various projects. At times, the GNWT offered to fund operations that a representative of NFTI argued were unnecessary or redundant, while denying projects the NFTI representative felt were crucial.
In an October conversation with Cabin Radio, Robinson said he ultimately parted ways with NFTI when he was asked to fulfill reporting requirements in ways that made him uncomfortable. He alleged, for example, that dates of invoices were tweaked to better suit the needs of funding reports, and that he had been fired after reporting to the federal government that a food storage facility for which funding had been received was never built.
“I’m certain that she has now made some serious claims about me, because that’s what she does when anyone opposes her,” said Robinson. “She makes these ridiculous claims and it scares people off, because they don’t want to deal with some kind of legal thing.”
Asked to comment on these allegations, Milne said Robinson was a violent abuser who had assaulted a woman on her farm.
“I’m being harassed. The guy is practically slandering me because I didn’t let him get away with what he did,” she said.
Cabin Radio contacted 10 former employees at the farm but was unable to independently confirm that a violent incident had occurred. Of four employees that agreed to speak on the record, none recalled a violent incident happening at NFTI.
Closing down the farm
According to Milne, a tip-off from Robinson led to an audit by Agriculture Canada. The audit, she said, is the reason she decided to shut down operations for good.
“This guy tried to accuse me of fraud,” said Milne. “Guess what? I worked as a volunteer. How could I possibly mismanage money when we’re not even getting paid? It’s just insane. But because of everything he did, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars, locked, of Agriculture Canada funds that needed to be paid to the institute.”
By December, the CBC had reported Milne’s resignation from NFTI, with responsibility for the institute reportedly assigned to former board member Fabian and, by extension, the Kátł’odeeche First Nation.
“We have no affiliation with the farm,” Chief April Martel of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation was quoted as telling the CBC. “We’re not going to be responsible for that.”
The dissolution of a non-profit is complex, especially when contending with outstanding debt or allocating responsibility for expensive assets. In the fallout from NFTI, both are factors.
In February, Hay River senior administrator Glenn Smith confirmed the town’s council had passed a motion to pursue collection of more than $60,000 in outstanding property tax and rent, while terminating NFTI’s tenancy.
“We will certainly be taking steps and working with the sheriff’s office on potential legal options,” said Smith.
Smith said the town had not been able to establish contact with Milne and did not know where she was.
The same month, Cabin Radio received a call from a BC-based organization – asking to remain anonymous as its representative feared legal liability – to say Milne had been moving high-value farm assets and animals to its property since June.
The organization’s representative said RCMP had been approached over the matter. BC RCMP did not return a request for comment and did not confirm any ongoing investigation.
Asked about these claims, Milne said she believe she knew who the representative was, describing them as “a bit of a kooky bird.”
“It’s my personal equipment, my personal animals, and I have receipts from when I originally purchased them,” she said.
The end of a dream
Hay River residents now want to know what will happen to the farmland. One rumour asserts that it will be bought by a housing developer, though nothing yet appears certain.
Milne and other NFTI staff members spent a significant amount of time cleaning up the property when they first came into possession of the land in 2014.
In October, she said she had been dreading for years the thought of what might follow NFTI in the same space.
“All the rich people in this town – a whole bunch of ’em – have wanted this land for just-about every reason except what it’s made for, which is agriculture,” said Milne at the time.
She’s not the only one that feels that way.
Janet Dean is the executive director of the Territorial Agri-food Association, which recently replaced the original Territorial Farming Association.
The agri-food association is hoping to find a way to continue the work begun at NFTI, and ensure the land remains a fully functional farm.
“We don’t want to let the dream of a non-profit experimental farm in the Northwest Territories die. But it’s going to be really hard for us to start from scratch if we can’t recover some of NFTI’s assets,” Dean said.
Like several others involved in the agricultural industry in Hay River that Cabin Radio spoke to for this story, she has mixed feelings about Milne’s legacy.
“You can’t separate Jackie from NFTI, but she hurt a lot of people along the way,” Dean said.
In the meantime, food insecurity continues to disproportionately impact northern communities. Milne believes a bureaucratic system that disempowers the citizens it serves is to blame.
She described encountering some children in the Northwest Territories who had never eaten a carrot, which can be grown in colder climates.
“It’s atrocious. It’s a crime, what’s happening,” Milne said. “And that’s why I poured my heart and soul into that project. But they made it so difficult. All they want is to check off their boxes, get the funds, and use as little of it as possible to actually invest in people at a grassroots level.”
Some see Milne as an iconoclast, a visionary, a person who dreamed big and upset a lot of people in the process.
“She’s an artist,” said Jason Botkin, who briefly worked with Milne on an advocacy effort to end vaccine passports.
“Artists occupy an odd place in the world,” he said. “How people interact with them, how the business world interacts with them, can be fraught. You’re filling out your tax forms, trying to work with an accountant, checking boxes, and it doesn’t really feel like there’s a place in this world for what you’re doing.”
A lot happened at NFTI and across the territory in the nine years that the organization ran training programs and workshops.
In Sambaa K’e, greenhouses developed in partnership with NFTI are still a source of pride for the community and have continued to feed more of its members each year. The same is true of community gardens in Łútsël K’é and Behchokǫ̀.
“The town and its partners really believed in this project and wanted to see it succeed,” said Smith, Hay River’s senior administrator. “And I think there’s some measure of success in the number of years it was in operation. I’m sure there was some success.”
Somewhere in the territory, there are seeds that will grow into vegetables this summer because of what someone learned at NFTI.
“It’s incredible that the farm was able to be what it was, that someone like Stephen Harper was able to give over a million dollars to someone like that for a project,” said Hind.
“In the end, it’s an incredible story.”