First Nations Face Higher Levels of Food Insecurity As Canada’s North Warms

First Nations in Canada face greater food insecurity as climate change threatens traditional food systems in our northern regions, a new report by Human Rights Watch shows. First Nations communities in Canada’s north have a rich history of hunting and living off the land as their diets would depend on seasonal availability. Way more than just a way to find food and feed their families, the relationship Indigenous peoples share with the environment is their lifeblood.

A warming climate is threatening this way of life. Human Rights Watch reports that Canada is warming at twice the rate of the global average, and in Canada’s north the change is even greater. Warmer winters are thawing the ice and permafrost that are essential for travel and hunting in these regions, as most “roads”—made of snow and ice—become more dangerous and unreliable to cross. As the temperature continues to track upwards and weather patterns worsen, First Nations communities will be forced to switch from traditional food sources to transported options from Canada’s south, a costly alternative. The report notes that a family of four from Peawanuck, a remote region on Hudson Bay in northern Ontario, would have to spend 30% more for healthy staple food items, compared to a family of the same size living in a city in central Canada. This would result in families needing to sacrifice a nutrient-rich diet for foods they can afford. Complicating matters further, the Canadian government’s effort to mitigate climate change by imposing a carbon tax would compound the effects of food insecurity for these communities as the federal tax would increase food prices, particularly in these northern regions.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization defines food insecurity as the “lack [of] regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” Canadian Indigenous peoples are already experiencing greater levels of food insecurity: a Statistics Canada report from 2018 found that 50.8% of First Nations households living on reserve were food insecure; this number was lower for Indigenous peoples living off reserve, at 28.2%, but significantly higher than 11.1%, the percentage of white Canadian households who were food insecure at the time of the consensus. As weather changes weaken the stability of traditional food systems, the problem of food insecurity for our friends in the north will only grow. A teacher in Smithers, Skeena River Watershed in British Columbia reported that kids have food sent home with them on weekends, otherwise they won’t get a meal. Even for those who do have food to feed their families, the quality of food is often poor and has led to disproportionate rates of diabetes and heart disease in First Nations’ communities.

First Nations’ are some of the most exposed to the effects of a warming climate, even though they are among the lowest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. These communities have come together to ease the effects by working on projects with greenhouses, community gardens, and climate-science programs that monitor the impacts of climate change in their specific areas. They have also developed food sharing initiatives to protect those most vulnerable to the changes in their communities.

Human Rights Watch has criticized the Canadian government for its failure to address the impacts of climate and food poverty for First Nations peoples, and the report includes a call to action for the government—to step up its efforts to mitigate climate change and help our friends in the north. The list of recommendations includes setting up an emissions policy consistent with its Paris Agreement; planning for a transition to clean energy in its COVID-19 stimulus package; and above all, ensuring that First Nations people are provided the support they need to get through the climate crisis and implement changes in their communities to mitigate its effects in the future.

Indigenous knowledge, with its deep understanding of climate patterns and traditional food systems, is one of our best tools we have against the wrath of a warming climate. This knowledge recognizes the dependency of our health on the health of our lands and ecosystems. But sometimes we forget the earth to save ourselves, going to show that the reverse of this dependency on nature is true as well: nature is dependent on us and on the health of our communities and our livelihoods. By supporting our friends in the north and making their health and safety a top priority, we inadvertently take up the call to restore this balance and save our planet.