Pathways to co-governance? The role of NGOs in food governance in the Northwest Territories, Canada

June 2019

By Carla Johnston & Peter Andrée

What are the lived opportunities and constraints for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are interested in improving food security and building sustainable food systems through policy and governance channels? How can these NGOs work collaboratively with government decision-makers and on-the-ground food system actors? These questions are at the heart of the chapter “Pathways to Co-governance? The Role of NGOs in Food Governance in the Northwest Territories, Canada” in the edited collection, Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance. This chapter came about through research with two NGOs, Ecology North and the Yellowknife Food Charter Coalition in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. These organizations are seeking to create collaborative governance in territorial and municipal food system policy-making spaces. Collaborative governance (or co-governance) is most simply defined as multiple actors working together to meet shared governance goals and usually includes some combination of civil society, government, business and other private actors. Through working alongside these two NGOs, opportunities and constraints to create collaborative governance became apparent.

The research for this chapter was grounded in Participatory Action Research, which is focused on creating partnerships with local actors to work together to change the status quo through informed action. To put this methodology into practice, the primary author worked directly with Ecology North and the Yellowknife Food Charter Coalition to support their food systems initiatives, with a focus on political advocacy and policy work.

Food systems actors from across the territory discussing the National Food Policy

To examine these experiences, we used theory on effective NGOs, the political and economic context of the NWT, and the key drivers for collaborative governance. In terms of the effectiveness of the NGOs we found that they were particularly skillful at visioning and employing new governance frameworks, coalition building, and working synergistically on policy with government actors and community initiatives.

When we examined the political and economic context within which the NGOs work, we found some constraints. At the territorial level, Ecology North is in a coalition-building phase to create a territorial network of food system actors. For this network, there are opportunities to influence agricultural policy with the territorial government, but other areas relevant to food policy, such as hunting and resource management, are already heavily governed by a range of invested actors. This has led the Network to ask: If there are already so many structures surrounding hunting, is the Network needed (or wanted) to support Indigenous hunters? At the municipal level, based largely on the consistent efforts of the Yellowknife Food Charter Coalition to work with the City of Yellowknife to make the case for a local food strategy, the City recently created GROW: Yellowknife Food and Agriculture Strategy. However, this opportunity was largely limited to agriculture, and a multi-stakeholder process, rather than the food systems and collaborative approach that the NGO would have liked.

Checking fish nets in Sambaa K’e

While the NWT and Yellowknife food systems are distinct in many ways, the lived experiences of the NGOs are similar with other struggles for sustainable food systems in Canada and globally. Though these NGOs have not yet reached co-governance, there are opportunities for it to emerge. In particular, the engagement of the NGOs with government and food system actors has helped to build trust. This is a critical element for facilitating the other key drivers of co-governance, such as shared motivation and capacity for joint action.

If you want to know more about the projects that Ecology North and the Yellowknife Food Charter Coalition work on to reach their policy and food systems goals, this chapter is a great place to start.


Carla Johnston is a Ph.D. Candidate and a Doctoral Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Her research interests include the governance of sustainable food systems in northern Canada as well as using Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology to work directly with civil society groups to create meaningful actions that help them reach their goals.



Peter Andrée is Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. His research focuses on the politics of food systems and the environment. He practices, and teaches, community-based participatory research methods. Prof. Andrée is co-editor of Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food (2014) and author of Genetically Modified Diplomacy (2007).



Johnston, C. & Andrée, P. (2019). Pathways to co-governance? The role of NGOs in food governance in the Northwest Territories, Canada. In Andrée, P. Clark, J.K., Levkoe, C.Z., Lowitt, K. (Eds.). Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance (43-62). London: Routledge. DOI:

The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from the open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.

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