Access to nutritious foods is a growing problem in northern First Nations. Michael Robidoux and François Haman are finding local solutions — with a practical twist.
“People romanticize about living off the land, but it’s extremely arduous work. You can go out for 12 hours to shoot a moose and come back empty-handed.”
– Michael Robidoux
While conducting field research on hockey in northern First Nations a decade ago, ethnologist Michael Robidoux stumbled upon something that made him take a sharp turn.
“On all my trips north, the people would take me on the land and talk about traditional food practices and how they had broken down,” Robidoux explains. “Some traditional foods, like burbot, a freshwater cod that’s very nutritious, had even become a kind of pariah.”
That is when Robidoux approached François Haman, a biologist and colleague at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics. “I wanted to figure out what these communities were eating and how that was affecting them in terms of health,” Robidoux says.
The two paired up and, along with researchers from the faculties of Science and Health Sciences, looked at how much traditional land-based food individuals in Wapekeka and Kasabonika Lake, First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario, were eating. They wanted to see if this correlated with blood levels of saturated and unsaturated fat, and risk for chronic disease.
They discovered that, in fact, no one was eating enough land-based food to make a real difference in their health. “The main sources of food come from the Northern store and local convenience stores, which have very little produce, and what they do have is prohibitively expensive,” explains Haman. “It’s not surprising that rates of overweight, obesity and diabetes are among the highest in the world.”
Robidoux and Haman, who eventually formed the Indigenous Health Research Group, a multidisciplinary network of researchers (see sidebar), decided to work with five northern First Nations and Métis communities, including Wapekeka, to find ways to increase food access and quality. However, they recognized early on that focusing solely on increasing consumption of traditional food was impractical. “People romanticize about living off the land, but it’s extremely arduous work,” explains Robidoux. “You can go out for 12 hours to shoot a moose and come back empty-handed. Cost is another huge factor —there’s the expense of fuel and the cost of winter gear.”
So their project took a three-pronged approach. Depending on the needs and interests of each of the five communities, they are helping them grow their own food, import food in an affordable way, and hunt and fish.
Wapekeka is a fly-in Oji-Cree First Nation about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, with a population of just over 300. The community wanted to try growing its own food in community gardens. “It was all quite new to them, so we provided information resources,” says Robidoux. “We also provided financial resources through a grant from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer for tools such as roto-tillers, as well as physical help digging rows.”
The summers in Wapekeka are short, so the community used a log house and teepees for growing seedlings, which are planted outside once it is warm. Their most recent harvest included squash, corn, peas and strawberries.
The project also provides money to buy fishing nets, winter gear and fuel for snowmobiles to encourage more hunting and fishing. In Carcross First Nation, Yukon, and in Telegraph Creek, B.C., they are working on greenhouses to grow fresh vegetables.
One of the biggest challenges in conducting this type of research is the cost to travel. “Presence is so important for maintaining that community trust, but it’s very expensive,” says Robidoux. “We try to go twice a year for peak seasons.”
Local “champions” in each of the communities help them stay linked, as does the project’s popular Facebook page. Recent posts include photos of Wapekeka children harvesting from their garden and links to information on canning.
The next step for Robidoux and Haman will be measuring the results. “We want to know the food yields and how much of this food people are actually eating,” says Haman. “Then we’ll look at the impact in terms of biological markers and rates of chronic disease.”
“We’re trying to build more food autonomy,” Robidoux adds. “We want to know, will people end up eating better?” Beyond the intended health benefits, the hope is that increasing such self-sufficiency will also lead to a greater sense of cultural sovereignty and pride in the community.
A decade of Indigenous health research
Michael Robidoux and François Haman founded the University of Ottawa’s Indigenous Health Research Group in 2006 to address the growing rate of obesity and obesity-related diseases in First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations. The multidisciplinary research team includes students and academics from the fields of ethnology, physical education, physiology, biology, toxicology and nutrition sciences. They work together with community partners to develop land-based strategies for improved access to nutritious foods and increased physical activity.
by Leah Geller