Food insecurity is a serious public health issue affecting indigenous communities in Canada. First Nations, Metis, and Inuit are the three groups that comprise Canada’s indigenous population, with First Nations being the largest of these groups.
Recent data on food security – meaning access to enough food at all times to ensure a healthy life – of off-reserve indigenous people is alarming, and is worse for those on-reserve.
33% of indigenous households off-reserve experience food insecurity, compared to 9% of households across the rest of Canada. But in reservation First Nations households, 54% experience food insecurity, with even higher numbers in Arctic indigenous communities.
Food insecurity has been associated with low levels of education and workforce participation, high levels of poverty, chronic illness, and multi-child and female-headed households.
Many indigenous communities are located in remote and isolated areas, which translates to decreased food access and availability.
Through the Nutrition North Canada (NCC) program, the federal government subsidizes the stocking and/or shipping of perishable food items to northern communities. Eligibility for the NCC program is based on four requirements: lacking year-round surface transportation; having an airport, post office, or grocery store; having a year-round population; and meeting the territorial or provincial definition of a northern community. The foods are ordered by retailers operating in the North and transported by plane or boat.
But many indigenous communities in the north say this program is not working. The food products subsidized by the NCC are chosen by someone external to the communities, instead of the people who will be impacted directly from the subsidies, who are experts of their own lives.
The NCC program is based on beneficence, or doing good to benefit others. But since those receiving the food subsidies do not get to choose what foods are subsidized, indigenous people lose autonomy and a long standing history of colonialism, paternalism and disenfranchisement is furthered.
What is difficult about food security is that there is no single answer to achieving it. No factor is static when analyzing food insecurity, especially in indigenous communities. For example, the two main barriers to acquiring traditional foods (according to a survey by BMC Public Health) were cost and environmental change. Gender, location, intergenerational well-being, colonialism, income, and poverty are other central themes that need to be taken into account, as well (Council of Canadian Academies).
If income were to improve, either through welfare payments or more employment opportunities, it would be easier for people to afford food prices and become food secure. Poverty is a key determinant in food insecurity.
Another way to improve food security would be to improve infrastructure, in the form of an all-season road. This way, food could always be accessed from southern stores, where food costs are lower.
Community-driven initiatives have the potential to increase self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on food transported from the south of Canada.
It is important to recognize that indigenous communities across Canada are disenfranchised under the colonial hand of provincial and federal governments, and will continue to be until the cycle of poverty is broken, and sustainable livelihoods are created through food security, reconciliation, and respect.