Recently released results from a 2016 study reveal remarkable insights into the diet, nutrition and environment of First Nations peoples living on-reserve across Canada – who hadn’t been included in previous national health and nutrition studies.
Developed in partnership between First Nations and academia over 10 years, the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study (FNFNES) is intended to fill gaps in knowledge about the composition of Indigenous diets and the impacts of environmental pollution on the quality and safety of traditionally harvested foods.
“The FNFNES serves as a point-in-time indicator of a changing world and seeks to capture the environmental and nutritional health of First Nations people,” states Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde in the study’s foreword. “The study seeks to quantify the health of traditional food sources, the quality and amount of food sources First Nations consume daily, and the quality of water in our territories.”
The most encouraging news is that there is a strong preference for traditional foods, which are a healthy source of essential nutrients. Among the 10 First Nations communities randomly selected in Quebec – including Mistissini, Whapmagoostui and Waskaganish in Eeyou Istchee – 95% of participants reported eating traditional foods such as moose, Canada goose, whitefish and blueberries, which a majority of households harvested themselves.
Besides providing far greater nutrient density than processed meats, the cultural impact of traditional foods cannot be overstated. In Eeyou Istchee, the health concept of miyupimaatisiiun (literally, “being alive well”) is based on living off the land and sharing natural food. It supports a vital intergenerational social fabric in communities.
Although analyses showed the nutritional benefits of traditional foods outweighed the relatively low risks of contamination, the study’s authors recommended using non-lead ammunition or at least cutting away the meat near the bullet’s entry point to decrease the possibility of shattered shards being consumed. The study reported 84% would prefer to eat more traditional foods but are inhibited by a lack of time, equipment and money, or by not having a hunter in the household.
“The other big story is the need for communities to be in charge because a lot of participants report barriers to traditional food access,” said one of the study’s authors, Malek Batal, a professor of Public Health Nutrition in the Department of Nutrition in the Faculty of Medicine at the Université de Montréal.
Batal points to barriers at the household level; the environmental level with mining, forestry and hydro-electric development; and, finally, that many “people who knew how to hunt and fish are no longer active.”
As colonial policies and climate change have impacted both wildlife and traditional lifestyles, there has been a transition towards store-bought foods and more sedentary lifestyles. Although nutritious market foods are a valuable complement to any diet, grocery costs are high in Eeyou Istchee and people too often choose processed foods and drinks that contribute to rising rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
“Eeyou Istchee has great traditional foods that are all very nutritious and we should consume them as often as possible,” recommended Chantal Vinet, Public Health Nutritionist at the Cree Health Board. “Nowadays, as commercial foods are part of Cree eating habits we should also try to include colourful veggies and fruits every day, as they provide antioxidant vitamins, water and fibre that are important for our health.”
The FNFNES found that adults are not eating enough grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. To encourage a more balanced diet, the authors recommend choosing dairy products or other beverages fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and eating more whole grains, such as bannock baked with whole-wheat flour.
Batal told the Nation that government and community leaders should do more to improve access to healthy foods, arguing that individuals have been bombarded with recommendations that are difficult to fulfill without the adequate resources.
“I would like mobilization at all levels to address food insecurity, which I think is a crisis, and mobilization to promote a healthier food system, including improved access to traditional healthy foods while preserving the resources for future generations,” Batal asserted.
The study found food insecurity affected nearly half of those surveyed, compared to the Canadian average of about 10%. This ranged from 28% of families relying on cheaper and lower-quality foods to 8% of families regularly experiencing food shortages.
“To address food insecurity, we must first address poverty,” Vinet said. “In Eeyou Istchee, a quarter of families are low-income. At a community level, we should improve access to food, and make sure there are healthy and affordable nutritious foods available for all.”
She suggested that knowledge to harvest and prepare traditional foods can be acquired at community camps like Murray’s Lodge in Mistissini while organizing community hunts, gardens and freezers can improve food access. In Chisasibi, for example, pilot projects like the Fort George farm are reviving Cree agricultural knowledge plus providing vegetables for the community.
“To ensure food security for our communities and future generations, we must protect the environment, the water and carefully monitor the development in the region,” Vinet added. “Contrary to other First Nations, we are lucky to have great water in Eeyou Istchee. Our band offices regularly monitor our tap water and most commonly used water sources around the community.”
FNFNES testing confirmed that tap water was within health guidelines. It found low levels of pharmaceuticals in surface water samples, which should also not be harmful to human health although it recommended returning unused medications to pharmacies for proper disposal.
Hair samples were also tested for mercury, which is most harmful for women of child-bearing age, who Batal recommended limit consumption of fish higher in the food chain. Although 6% of participants exceeded acceptable levels, Vinet said mercury is generally more an issue in reservoirs, where rivers have been disturbed by hydro development.
“Improving access to nutritious food in Eeyou Istchee must be done in collaboration with multiple organizations,” summarized Vinet. “Communities seem to be interested to harvest and produce more local foods, which is an important aspect of building community food security.”