FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION, Ont. – For many generations First Nations people have been able to sustain themselves off the land without worrying about health problems such as diabetes and obesity.
But that’s no longer the case as these two major health issues now plague many First Nations communities across the province and country. The health concerns are especially significant in many Northwestern Ontario communities as dependency on processed, store-bought food has become prevalent.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Harvey Yesno said there needs to be a return to the basic dietary staples that can be naturally harvested.
“We’re trying to encourage our own communities to take advantage of the wild foods such as fish and meat that is available,” Yesno said after the opening remarks at the Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s fifth annual Food Symposium, which is being held on the Mount McKay Lookout.
“Throughout our own history there were community gardens where the lands were conducive to granting potatoes and other crops. Our people have done that and we’re trying to revive it.”
The three-day conference, which this year has a theme of “traditional foods without borders,” began on Tuesday.
Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy said there has to be a significant shift in many remote communities where residents place a premium on a healthy lifestyle.
That has to happen before any kind of assistance towards greenhouses, community gardens and livestock programs can be sought.
“I think the starting point would be my people needing to understand it’s their responsibility to be healthy. It’s our responsibility to harvest what we can from the land. It’s our responsibility to understand the solutions to our health problems must come from within,” Beardy said.
Beardy believes the trend of imported food on remote First Nations began within the past 40 years and can be attributed to residential schools. He said he and his family sustained themselves with natural occurring food when they lived on the Muskrat Dam First Nation.
Those who were sent away became accustomed to processed diets and lost the ability to sustain themselves off the land.
“Unfortunately they never had the privilege of learning traditional harvesting methods and how to harvest the land so they became dependent upon stores,” Beardy said.
The reliance on imported food comes with significant financial costs.
Even with Nutrition North Canada Subsidy, communities such as Sandy Lake and Pikangikum are paying as much as $11 for a litre of milk.
Yesno said the price discrepancy is even more pronounced on lesser populated reserves, where smaller and less frequent shipments make the cost of goods even more expensive.
“We’re trying to address that and soften the impact of the cost through some of the programs that are available,” he said.
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