People and programs
Many foods are central to Indigenous cultures, traditions, and relationships to the land. Moose and rabbit in Canada’s vast interior; seal and narwhal in the north; salmon, lobster and crab in coastal communities – all have been hunted and fished for thousands of years.
The decimation of culture caused by the residential school system and rampant poverty have caused a break in hunting and eating traditions, and led many Indigenous communities to become disconnected from their traditional foods.
The reviving of those traditions is now happening in many communities. Learning from Indigenous communities as they strengthen health, culture and sovereignty through food, and supporting that work with funding, is part of CFCC’s commitment to the reconciliation process.
We spoke to leaders in three Indigenous communities about the work they’re doing to reconnect people to traditional foods.
Birch Narrows Dene Nation, Saskatchewan
Birch Narrows Dene Nation is about 700 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, in an area of rich boreal forest. It’s a tight-knit and caring community that’s intensely focused on supporting its youth to learn and thrive. It's also located in a remote area where rates of food insecurity are high: Saskatchewan and Manitoba have the highest child poverty rate for status First Nations children living on reserve—65% of these children live in poverty.
“The cost of fruit and vegetables is ridiculously high – carrots are about six bucks, celery about four dollars, and a bag of potatoes around nine,” says Rebecca Sylvestre, program manager at the developing community food centre in the community. “You can’t buy very much fresh, healthy food when you’re only living on two hundred dollars a month.”
“Growing up, I’d been taught a lot about traditional foods. I learned how to fix ducks, cook moose meat, set a snare for rabbit, and fix fish. A lot of this diet and traditional skills are being lost, but at the centre we’re seen a lot more community members coming together to learn and celebrate them.”
Rebecca is taking steps to include moose, rabbit, and fish on the centre’s menu. “One of our best attended programs is one that offers traditional food and language classes that focus on moose meat prep, and smoking and drying. It attracted almost 150 participants over two days.”
“It’s easy to just give out food to families. But we don’t want to just give out handouts. This is a learning centre. Volunteers can come and cook and teach at the same time, and share their knowledge.”
Rebecca is particularly excited about welcoming elders to the centre to share their knowledge, and about the centre’s youth programs.
“It’s coming back – the interest in traditional foods is coming back. Our kids, they sit and taste the food and crave it. We have this land and this culture inside of us, and we’re bringing it back to life again.”
Food insecurity is a pressing issue in the north. Almost half of Nunavummiut live in households that struggle to put food on the table. Current practices to remedy the crisis, such as the Nutrition North program, which subsidizes imported foods, aren’t working. Action around income, housing, and local food harvesting is urgently needed to help solve the problem.
“The cost of food varies tremendously in Nunavut. Iqaluit, has some of the lowest, but if you go further up to Baffin Island, the prices can be double what they are here – which are already high to begin with,” says Wade Thorhaug, Executive Director of the Qajurqturvik Community Food Centre.
How high? On average, you’re looking at food costs that are two to three times higher than other parts of Canada. Carrots, for example, are about three dollars per kilo, whereas in the north they’re closer to six.
At the CFC, staff strive to offer healthy food in a welcoming space, and to include country foods in the centre’s daily community meals, which bring about 100 people to the table. Everything from ringed seals to caribou and arctic char can be featured, depending on what’s available.
“We try to source as much country food as we can,” says Wade. “When we can get it, we incorporate in to our community meal. Ideally we’d be serving country food every day, and it would be our main source of protein.”
While country food and harvesting are central to Inuit culture, community, and well-being, hunting can be expensive and is not funded in the same way as are other methods of food production.
“We want to see more direct funding going towards country food. We have farmers in the south that have been subsidized for generations, so why don’t we have a subsidy for food producers in the North?”
Recent funding announcements in A Food Policy for Canada should help with this. The $40-million Harvesters Support Grant will support hunters in northern communities. Combined with the $15 million Northern Isolated Community Initiatives Fund, they may create some positive movement on the high cost of healthy food in Canada’s north.
Even before the funding announcement was made in June, Wade and his colleagues were already looking at local, traditional solutions. “We’re trying to bring a hunter on staff,” he says. “We have a funding application in for this that, if it comes through, would allow us to pay him a salary. If we have a hunter on staff, we would have a much more steady supply of country food.”
Eel Ground First Nation, New Brunswick
Erica Ward is Mi’kmaq, born and raised in Eel Ground First Nation, a community of about 600 people in northeastern New Brunswick. The Mi’kmaq have a strong connection to the land on the banks of the Miramichi River, where they’ve lived, hunted moose, gathered berries, and fished eel and salmon for nearly 3,000 years.
These days, close to 40 per cent of the community struggle with food insecurity. “We have over three times the food insecurity as our neighbours. Poverty has a lot to do with it,” says Erica. “Some of our community members just don’t have enough money to buy healthy food.”
Erica, who is a program manager at the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre, has been working with colleagues to introduce traditional foods into community meals and other programs at the centre.
“We serve moose on a weekly basis for approximately half the year,” she says. “For the remainder, we try to serve fish when available.
“When the door first opened here, moose may have not been as well perceived as it is today. It took some persuading and recipe trials and errors to get there,” she explains.
“It’s important for community members to consistently be exposed to what our ancestors ate and survived off of. All of those things are part of who we are as Mi’kmaq people. Eating traditional food, learning how it is harvested, where it is found, this is how we hold onto those teachings and hold on to our identity as the Mi’kmaq.”
The Natoaganeg Community Food Centre offers two weekly culturally relevant drop-in meals. Adds Erica: “Community members can also access traditional protein at our Good Food Bank, as well as whole and healthy food options. There’s a Community Access Market too, which offers fresh produce and homemade items at affordable prices. We also host weekly culture classes such as beading, wood burning, traditional pinch pots, and wampum.”
A 2014 survey found that three of four community members in Eel Ground want to eat more traditional food as part of their daily day diet, but they face many barriers, including the fact that there are no harvesters in households, the knowledge of hunting, gathering or fishing has not been passed down, and the amount of time it takes to harvest traditional food. Erica adds that insufficient funds prevent hunters and gatherers from accessing the tools and transportation they need.
As the centre works to bring traditional foods back to the table, the Eel Ground community is fighting another big battle, to be able to exercise their treaty rights to fish snow crab. Earlier this year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans seized their traps, in spite of a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that the Mi’kmaq have a treaty right to hunt, fish, harvest, and gather in their territory for the purposes of trade and to earn a moderate livelihood. The community is waiting for the government to return the 76 seized traps and for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to come to the negotiation table.
As our work with Indigenous communities progresses, we look forward to continuing to learn from our Indigenous partners and to create a space for them to share the unique experiences of their communities as they work to develop a culturally relevant "place for food."