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First Nations’ food security must be part of Fort McMurray rebuild

While emergency workers are busy putting out the wildfire and different governments are delivering various aid and relief programs to help the evacuees from Fort McMurray, Alta., we need to start planning to cope with the aftermath of the fire.

The Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry estimated the blaze has now covered nearly 6,000 square kilometres. Many native plants and animals will be destroyed or moved. It might take decades for the environment to recover. This will worsen the already critical situation of food security among First Nations.

There are 45 First Nation communities in Alberta with a total population of 63,376 people living on reserve. Locally hunted game and harvested berries are important traditional foods that are essential to meeting the nutritional needs of First Nations communities and are a central component of cultural identity.

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The recent decline in oil prices may be causing the current downturn in Alberta's economy, but during its peak, while Albertans were the wealthy and healthy, First Nations communities were struggling to find enough food to meet basic dietary requirements. Results of a 10-year nationwide study called the First Nations Food Nutrition and Environment Study (FNFNES) were released late last month for Alberta at the Assembly of Treaty Chiefs, and the situation of food insecurity is dire for many Alberta First Nations.

Funded by Health Canada and conducted by researchers from the University of Ottawa and University of Montreal, the FNFNES has been implemented region by region across Canada since 2008, and results have been reported for British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario.

In Alberta, data collection was conducted from a total of 609 participants (387 women and 222 men) in 10 randomly selected First Nation communities during the fall of 2013. The results were deemed to be representative of all First Nation communities in Alberta. The most alarming finding was the fact that 47 per cent of households experienced food insecurity; 34 per cent of the households were moderately food-insecure and 13 per cent were severely food-insecure. Alberta First Nations had the highest rate of food insecurity, compared with British Columbia (41 per cent), Manitoba (38 per cent) and Ontario (29 per cent).

The FNFNES measures food insecurity using the same measuring tool that is used by Health Canada and can therefore be directly compared with the Canadian average, which was at 8 per cent in 2011-12. Household food security is defined as "when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."

Limited availability and accessibility of traditional food is a major factor for food insecurity. The most frequently eaten traditional foods in Alberta were moose, Saskatoon berries, and raspberries, with more than 100 different traditional foods harvested during the year, with the types varying across communities. Sixty-five per cent of households reported harvesting traditional food in the last year and more than three-quarters of participants reported that they would like to have more of it.

However, the key barriers to increased use included a lack of equipment, transportation, or no hunter in the household, as well as too many government regulations. Additional external factors that inhibited access to traditional food included oil/gas and forestry operations as well as climate change. Dietary quality was much improved on days when traditional foods were consumed. When only market food was consumed, intakes of saturated fat, sugar and sodium were significantly higher.

Food insecurity is known to relate to poor or fair health, an inability to perform key activities due to health problems, long-term physical and/or mental disabilities that limit activity at home, work or school, multiple chronic conditions, depression and a perceived lack of social support.

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Moreover, contamination of traditional foods caused by the wildfire may further limit their supply. The FNFNES has already reported elevated levels of chemical contaminants such as lead, cadmium and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in some traditional foods that might lead to potential health effects, particularly among the "heavy" traditional-food consumers. In our efforts to rebuild the communities in Alberta, let's work together with First Nations to develop an environmental management and food security plan to improve their food security as well.

Laurie Chan is Canada Research Chair in Toxicology and Environmental Health at the University of Ottawa, Lynn Barwin is a research associate at the University of Ottawa and Malek Batal is a professor of nutrition at the University of Montreal.

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