Climate change harming Indigenous access to healthy food and 'the worst is yet to come': report
Wild caribou roam the tundra in Nunavut on March 25, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
TORONTO -- Climate change is hindering access to healthy food in Indigenous communities across Canada, advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a new report.
The report, which is based on interviews with more than 120 residents of First Nations in northern Ontario, northern British Columbia and Yukon, as well as experts on Indigenous issues, was released Wednesday.
“Climate change is significantly impacting First Nations—and their livelihoods—across Canada, and there is evidence that the worst is yet to come,” it reads.
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Food insecurity affects approximately one in seven Canadian households. Indigenous communities experience food insecurity at a much higher rate; a 10-year study released last year found that 48 per cent of First Nations households struggle to put food on the table. Early signs suggest the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn have exacerbated the problem.
Likewise, while the climate crisis has affected all of Canada – the country is warming at double the global rate – northern communities are disproportionately impacted.
“The horrible irony is that we have contributed very little to climate change, but are facing the biggest impacts,” Vern Cheechoo of the Mushkegowuk Council, a regional Cree group in northern Ontario, said Wednesday at a press conference organized around the report’s release.
HRW brought together these two issues, showing how they combine to pose problems for lives and livelihoods in remote Indigenous communities.
TRADITIONAL FOOD SOURCES THREATENED
The report details the experiences of Joseph and Helen Koostachin, a couple who live in Peawanuck, Ont. The remote Cree community is located near James Bay and does not have year-round road access to the rest of the country.
Hunting, trapping and fishing have been the Koostachins’ main methods of obtaining food for their entire lives. However, they told the HRW researchers, these activities are becoming much more difficult because of climate change.
The ice that forms on nearby waterways is rarely as stable as it used to be, they said, making it more difficult to travel over the ice for wintertime hunting. During the summer months, nearby rivers often run low, making canoe trips difficult. And all of this transportation is necessary to secure food, because fewer geese and caribou are migrating to the area, meaning anyone in Peawanuck looking for traditional sources of food may have to travel farther than they ever have before.
These challenges are not unique to Peawanuck; the HRW researchers heard similar stories from those they talked to in the Skeena River watershed in B.C. and Old Crow, Yukon.
“Residents reported drastic reductions in the quantity of harvestable resources available, and increased difficulty and danger associated with harvesting,” they wrote.
“They attributed this decline in part to changes in wildlife habitat as a result of climate change, including changing ice and permafrost, wildfires, warming water temperatures, changes in precipitation and water levels, and unpredictable weather.”
Many of those who spoke to the researchers stressed that these changes have been happening for decades. In Old Crow, Lorraine Netro has seen them firsthand. She describes the fly-in community as “ground zero for climate change.”
“We’ve watched our landscape change right in front of our eyes,” she said at the press conference.
Indeed, although the landscape will continue to shift as global temperatures warm further, the report detailshow the residents of Peawanuck are already feeling their effects.
The Koostachins said they can no longer find enough food on their own to sustain themselves. As a result, they’re relying on the community’s grocery store – where goods are mostly flown in, driving up prices significantly. HRW estimated “a standard selection of healthy food” costs 30 per cent more in Peawanuck than it does in Toronto. That isn’t realistically affordable for the Koostachins or many others in Peawanuck, where the median income is lower than the Canadian average.
All of these compounding problems will worsen as climate change continues, HRW said. Shifting animal migration patterns will continue to make traditional hunting and trapping difficult. Warmer temperatures will lead to shorter seasons for northern ice roads – and because those roads are one of the few options for moving supplies to isolated communities without having to pay air freight costs, prices will increase further as more goods come in via air. In turn, more northern residents will opt for less healthy foods, seeing them as the only affordable way to eat.
This, too, is a bigger problem in Peawanuck than it would be in many other parts of Canada. Indigenous communities already have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, among other health issues.
“Like the rest of the world, we want our families to be healthy. We want our children to be as healthy as everybody else’s,” Netro said.
THE CLIMATE FACTOR
The report accuses Canada’s federal and provincial governments of not doing enough to fight climate change or to protect Indigenous communities from its effects.
It notes that Canada is among the world’s top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases despite its relatively small population, and not on track to meet its emissions reduction targets for 2030 or 2050 – targets that it labels as weak even if they were to be achieved.
“If all government targets were in range with Canada’s level of ambition, warming would reach over 2 C and up to 3 C,” the report reads.
Canada is a signatory to the Paris Agreement, which calls for the global temperature increase to be kept to less than 2 C from pre-industrial levels and best efforts to be made to keep the increase below 1.5 C.
Working with First Nations “to address food insecurity” was one of the promises made in September’s throne speech. HRW saw this as a positive development, saying that the Canadian government has heretofore largely ignored the specific impacts climate change is having on Indigenous communities.
“Indigenous peoples in Canada are among the lowest contributors to greenhouse emissions in the country, yet academic research shows they are among the most exposed to climate change impacts,” the report reads.
“Most existing policies were designed without meaningful participation of First Nations and fail to monitor—let alone address—human rights impacts in these communities.”
The report offers several recommendations for the federal government to address the issue, including stronger climate change policies, targeted support for Indigenous communities and a public acknowledgement of the right to food as a basic human right.