A recent study from the First Nations Association, the University of Ottawa, and the University of Montreal found that traditional food is the foundation for the health and well-being of First Nations people. Unfortunately, First Nations have four times the rate of food insecurity as non-indigenous people, as well as disproportionate levels of nutrition-related disease.
First Nations is a term used to describe Aboriginal groups living on reservations in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit. There are 643 First Nations communities across Canada, with a total population of about 510,000. Within First Nations societies, traditional food holds enormous nutritional, cultural, and spiritual value.
The Food, Nutrition and Environment Study for First Nations (FNFNES) is the most comprehensive study on First Nations food and health systems ever conducted in Canada. Over the course of 10 years, nearly 6,500 people from 92 first countries participated in assessing diet and nutrition quality, health status, food security, drinking water quality and food safety.
FNFNES began in 2008 after the Assembly of First Nations expressed concerns about contaminants in the food supply due to environmental degradation, particularly in traditional foods. According to the study researchers, First Nations individuals were previously excluded from Canada’s studies on health and nutrition or were participating at very low rates. Using a community participatory research methodology, scholars, academic institutions, and community researchers from First Nations worked collaboratively to collect data and make decisions.
Dr. Malik Batal, co-author of FNFNES Food Tank, says, “As researchers, we have to assess colonial history. This study… was one of the first to work in this way. Now it is largely a standard practice.”
According to Patal, the study shows that traditional food is mostly healthy and safe. “The aspect to work on is … food security and diet quality. [This] It doesn’t mean telling people what to eat. The problem is the access problem.”
For thousands of years, First Nations harvested food by hunting, fishing, and gathering. In addition to contributing crucial nutrition to the diet of First Nations peoples, harvesting traditional foods enhances the well-being and physical fitness of community members. But FNFNES has found that climate change, colonial policies and activities including industrial mining, forestry, and destructive agricultural practices threaten these traditional food systems. According to FNFNES, more than half of adults report that these barriers prevent them from harvesting traditional foods.
On average, 48 percent of First Nations are food insecure, compared to 12 percent of Canada’s population. High rates of food insecurity stem from colonial policies that limit the availability, quality and safety of traditional foods. As a result, First Nations peoples gradually increased their intake of store-bought foods that often had poor nutritional content and/or over-processed. This has led to disproportionate levels of nutrition-related chronic diseases including heart disease, anemia, obesity, cancer and diabetes.
First Nations peoples suffer from diabetes at twice the rate of the Canadian population, which the study found is linked to exposure to pollutants mostly found in fish. Additionally, 74 percent of adults in First Nations are obese, compared to 60 percent of the general population in Canada.
The study also found that large predatory fish within First Nations lands had high levels of mercury, and there were elevated levels of lead in mammalian and bird samples. This is particularly concerning for women of childbearing age because these pollutants can harm developing fetuses and young children.
According to the study, drinking water quality in 30 percent of households is also affected by excess levels of minerals, highlighting the need for improved water treatment systems.
The researchers hope that FNFNES will provide First Nations people and policy makers with the data they need to advocate for greater food sovereignty and environmental protection. According to the University of Ottawa, some communities are already using the data to develop programs that address food insecurity and the contamination of traditional foods.
The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) is the health and wellness partner of more than 200 First Nations communities. Kathleen Young, an FNHA specialist in the areas of healthy eating and food security, told Food Tank, “The data from FNFNES has informed ways for FNHA to work internally and with external partners to ensure food access is centralized around traditional foods.”
FNFNES researchers are also launching a new national study on First Nations Children and Youth Health, the first study to focus on this population.
Despite the many challenges, First Nations peoples continue to demonstrate their resilience and self-determination. But Battal says they will need appropriate political and financial support from the Canadian government to bring about change.
Without government help nothing can happen. [This is] Ammunition for communities to demand more,” Patal told Food Tank.
Photo courtesy of FNFNES