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Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge


I Introduction
II The Panel’s Approach to the Assessment
III Key Findings
IV Promising Practices to Build Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Health, and Wellness
V Conclusion

Submitted by Council of Canadian Academies

I Introduction

Food security is a growing challenge. The global economic crisis and increased food prices have made the situation more urgent for the world’s 870 million chronically undernourished people. In 2011, 12% of Canadian households experienced food insecurity, with one in eight households affected, or 3.9 million individuals. Of these, 1.1 million were children. Food insecurity presents a particularly serious challenge in Canada’s remote Aboriginal communities. In 2011, off-reserve Aboriginal households in Canada were about twice as likely as other Canadian households to be food insecure. Due to the high cost of importing food to the North, the average cost of groceries for a household with children in Nunavut, Nunatsiavut (NL), and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (NWT and YT) in 2007–2008 was $19,760 per year, yet 49% of Inuit adults earned less than $20,000. With growing importance being placed on northern economic development, there is increased pressure to deal with food insecurity. Solutions require the involvement not just of policy-makers but of those most affected by food insecurity: people living in the North.

Charge to the Panel

In recognition of this problem, Health Canada asked the Council of Canadian Academies to appoint an expert panel to respond to the following question:

What is the state of knowledge of the factors influencing food security in the Canadian North and of the health implications of food insecurity for Northern Aboriginal populations?

To undertake the assessment, the Council appointed a multidisciplinary panel of national and international experts that included Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scholars, most of whom have lived and worked in northern communities. The Expert Panel examined peer-reviewed literature along with credible reports and articles, and they ensured that evidence was informed by traditional knowledge and community-based research. Council assessments do not involve widespread consultations, but the Panel worked with National Aboriginal Organizations to locate additional data and ensure that conclusions were based on a diversity of evidence sources.

II The Panel’s Approach to the Assessment

To understand food security in northern Aboriginal environments, the Panel took a holistic approach. It developed a people-centred framework that presents the many factors that influence life in the North. Rather than being understood as discrete entities, the concepts of food security and food sovereignty emerge from the inter-relationships of the multiple factors and themes in the framework.

The innovative conceptual framework considers the scope of evidence and expertise that is explored in the report. It demonstrates that the state of knowledge of Aboriginal food security in the North can only be understood through a multifaceted and nuanced perspective that respects the various experiences of diverse First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. The framework can serve as a tool for policy-makers, researchers, and, most of all, those individuals and communities affected by food security challenges in the North, to help build meaningful and lasting solutions.

III Key Findings

1. Food insecurity is a serious problem in northern and remote Aboriginal communities across Canada. Aboriginalhouseholds experience food insecurity at a rate about two times higher (27.1%) than non-Aboriginal households (11.5%). Households with children report even higher ratesof food insecurity, and more women than men are affected. Results from the 2007–2008 International Polar Year Inuit Health Survey show that the people of Nunavut had thehighest food insecurity rate for any Indigenous population in a developed country (68%). Food insecurity has negative impacts on individuals, families, and communities, as wellas far-reaching social, public health, environmental, and economic implications for the North and the rest of Canada. Chapter 3 of the report examines the scope of the problem.

2. Food security is a complex issue with significant implications for health and wellness. Food insecurity is linked to negative physical outcomes such as under-nutrition and obesity, and to diet-sensitive chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It is also linked to poverty, poor educational outcomes, and stress. While these issues alone have serious social and economic impacts, Aboriginal definitions of health and wellness extend beyondthe physical to include mental, spiritual, emotional, andsocial dimensions. Various assimilationist policies have denied Aboriginal peoples access to the lands and resourcesof their traditional territories, and have disrupted localeconomies, the sharing of local environmental knowledge, and intergenerational well-being. The impacts continue to resonate, with significant implications for food security.

3. There is a nutrition transition taking place in the rapidly changing North. While food sharing networks remain a key part of many northern Aboriginal cultures and economies, a nutrition transition is underway due to social, economic, cultural, technological, political, and environmental changes. This transition, examined in Chapter 7 of the report, refers to the shift from nutrient-rich locally sourced food (hunted or harvested) to store-bought food. While a single portion of local animal or fish food results in increased levels of energy, protein, and many essential vitamins and minerals, much of the food bought from stores in the North tends to be highly processed and low in nutrients. As a result, the nutrition transition is associated with a decrease in dietary quality. Together, food insecurity and the nutrition transition represent a double burden.

4. The concepts of food security and food sovereignty are equally important in understanding the problem and finding effective, multi-sectoral solutions. While foodsecurity focuses on the pillars of nutrition, access, availability,acceptability, adequacy, and use to ensure that all people at alltimes have physical, social, and economic access to food,the concept of food sovereignty is based on human rights.At its core is the principle that decisions about food systemsshould be made by those who depend on them. While theobligation to realize the right to adequate food rests withnational and provincial/territorial governments, partnershipsbetween those governments and those affected are essentialto developing useful, long-term solutions to food insecurity.

5. Many factors enable or serve as barriers to food security and food sovereignty. As depicted in the conceptualframework, the issue of food security is ultimatelyabout the health and well-being of people. People and communities have different relationships with these factors, depending, for example, on their reliance on locally sourced versus store-bought food. Food insecurity cannot be attributed to one cause. As Chapter 2 of the report makes clear, all of these factors have relationships with each other, many ofwhich change over time.

6. There is no single experience of food insecurity. Northern Canada is rich in cultural, social, ecological, geographic, economic, and climatic diversity. Distinct First Nations, Inuit, and Métis cultures, communities, and individuals have different experiences with food (in)security. Local strategies and adaptations to achieve food security and food sovereignty are similarly diverse. In a First Nations Regional Health Survey from the Dene Nation in NWT, for example, 90% of the 824 respondents indicated that, in the preceding year, an adult in their household either had cut the size of their meals or skipped meals, were hungry but did not eat, or ate less than they felt they should due to a lack of money for food. In 14 communities in northern Manitoba lacking all-weather roads or located north of the city of Thompson, 75% of households reported being food insecure; of these households, 42% were moderately food insecure and 33% were severely food insecure.

7. There is no single way to “solve” food security issues in the North. A range of holistic approaches is required. A rangeof programs and policies will help reduce food insecurity. Short-term solutions can address acute needs, while policy and organizational changes can establish longer term solutions that focus on root causes. Collaboration among communities,institutions, local agencies, and local, provincial, and federal governments is important for successful initiatives. Geographic, cultural, environmental, and economic diversity calls for programs and policies that can respond to local needs and that are informed by traditional knowledge. Ideally, local food systems, sound economic development, and poverty reduction strategies will also come into play.

8. There exists a strong body of research and traditional knowledge with respect to food security and northern Aboriginal health, but several knowledge gaps persist. These include gaps in our understanding of food security as a health determinant in the North, gaps associated with enablers of and barriers to food security, gaps with respect to store-bought versus locally sourced food, and knowledge gaps with respect to the relationship between food security and local food. For example, more data are required on the differences in women and men’s experiences of food insecurity, the extent to which Métis communities and households are food secure, the health and abundance of species used for food, and thesupply chain costs of store-bought food systems.

9. The food security measurement methods used to date have been valuable, but their ability to respond to the complex issue of food security in the northern Canadian Aboriginal context is limited. It can be difficult to measure complex social issues using research tools. For example, the extent to which researchers can understand the links among traditional food systems, holistic health, community health,and individual health is limited. Beyond obtaining robust and comparable data sets, data collection tools and standards must be adapted to the varied realities of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. This adaptation could greatly benefit from involving Northerners. The inclusion of local knowledge and informal institutions is important for researchers to truly understand community health and risk management, as well as for policymakers and communities to make decisions. A comprehensive picture of the situation across regions, age groups, gender,and communities is important to deliver evidence-based public policy.

IV Promising Practices to Build Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Health, and Wellness

Short- and Long-Term Approaches

Because food insecurity is experienced differently at individual, household, community, and regional levels, it follows that strategies to mitigate food insecurity must be similarly diverse. A continuum of programs and policies must be used to address food insecurity, ranging from short-term mitigation (temporary solutions such as food banks and children’s feeding programs) to capacity building and skills development programs (e.g., community gardens and cooperative buying clubs), to long-term organizational change and policy responses that focus on root causes (e.g., food policy networks and food system interventions).

Multi-Level Approaches and Inter-Sectoral Collaboration

Declining harvests of plant and animal wildlife species, increased imports and consumption of store-bought food, and the discovery of environmental contaminants in traditional and country food have inspired Aboriginal people, communities, researchers, and governments to action. Grassroots efforts to improve Aboriginal peoples’ health and wellness include community-led food assessments such as NiKigijavutHopedalimi in Hopedale, Labrador; resistance to poverty and high food prices through Iqaluit-based Feeding My Family; and the national movement Idle No More, which aims to peacefully honour Indigenous sovereignty and rights and to protect the land and water. At provincial and territorial levels, Manitoba’s Northern Healthy Foods Initiative aims to build food security and food sovereignty in northern and remote Manitoba communities, and in Nunavut local, territorial, and corporate stakeholders from across the North have collaborated to draft the Nunavut Food Security Strategy. Health Canada’s Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative, the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program, and Nutrition North Canada represent steps taken at the national level. The Panel concluded that a continuum of multi-level approaches based on intersectoral collaboration among communities, local agencies, government, and institutions is important for successful and sustainable initiatives.

Multidisciplinary Approaches

While each of these initiatives is important, no single response can solve the problem of food insecurity. Nutrition education programs are valuable, but they cannot compensate for poor access to food, for example. In addition to multi-level approaches, multidisciplinary responses are critical to building food security and food sovereignty. The Panel grouped a selection of strategies into seven categories:

  • programs to increase the affordability and availability of healthy food (e.g., Growing Forward, MB);
  • health and education (e.g., Nunavut Food Guide Recipe Program);
  • community wellness and intergenerational knowledge sharing (e.g., Ilisaqsivik, NU);
  • harvester support and sustainable wildlife management (e.g., Eeyou Astchee1, QC);
  • poverty reduction and community economic development (e.g., Bayline Northern Food Security Partnership, MB);
  •  innovation in infrastructure and local food production (e.g., Northern Farm Training Institute, NT); and,
  • youth engagement (e.g., Going Off, Growing Strong, NL).

V Conclusion

The release of Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge was met with international, national, and provincial media coverage and spurred the start of an important conversation.The report will serve as a valuable tool for those engaged in addressing food security issues. It also sets the stage for informed dialogue between policy-makers and northern communities about how to secure short-, medium-, and long-term solutions.


Access the full report and related materials:

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