BY Jeff Carter
Canadians have learned an important lesson through their involvement with develop-ment projects around the globe. If you wish to help impoverished communities, follow rather than lead.
Yet within Canada, the paternalistic model is too often applied, often with disastrous results. The remote indigenous communities of the Canadian North are a prime example.
For the past half century, in an effort to make the cost of food affordable, retail subsidies have been applied to reduce transportation costs. That began with the Food Mail Program in the 1960s and continues to this day under Nutrition North Canada, part of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.
The folks at Nutrition North are correct in that their program has succeeded to a degree. With the subsidy in place, food costs have indeed been reduced.
Yet the approach remains an abject failure. There is a world of difference between being fed and being fed well.
Along with the poverty and despair that continues to plague many of these communities, the rate of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other nutritionally-linked ailments are far higher in the north compared to the rest of Canada.
There is an opportunity for positive change, if recommendations from the July report from the federal Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs are not relegated to a shelf to collect dust.
The report calls for greater self-reliance in the north, a shift toward traditional foods such as game, fish and geese. These resources provided the bulk of the nutrition prior to the arrival of Europeans to North America and the people were better for it, leading healthy active lives for the most despite the hardships.
That view is supported in the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study released in 2019. The study, which took a decade complete, shows that people with at least some access to traditional foods were receiving better nutrition compared to those community members relying solely on store purchases.
The direction is supported by indigenous leaders as well.
According to Jason Smallboy, Deputy Grand Chief of the Niskwabe Aski First Nation of Northwestern Ontario: “A significant and sustainable change is needed. We must re-envision food systems and food governance within our nation, because what has been made available through government funding and initiatives to address food security in the north simply isn’t working … We support system change, placing emphasis on the traditional culture of food within communities and the significant role it plays in not only physical health outcomes but also mental health outcomes.”
Placing greater reliance on traditional foods is a step in the right direction but unfortunately it currently represents only a relatively small part of northern diets. Other community-based solutions are needed, such as gardening where climate and soils allow, and other locally-managed efforts.
Another major recommendation in the standing committee report, one which has received little media play, is a proposed change to the Nutrition North Canada program so that the retail subsidy would become “…available to agricultural producers and well as community cooperatives, non-profits and community organizations, such as food banks, which provide food and services in some remote and isolated community.”
That would support the work of the non-profit Regional Food Distribution Association based in Thunder Bay and the Southwestern Ontario Gleaners in Leamington that are already shipping donated foods to the north – but without the benefit of Nutrition North’s retail subsidy.
The SWO Gleaners has been shipping donated greenhouse produce north along with dried soup mixes, remarkably the same type of soup mixes they prepare for hungry people in other parts of the world.
Yet charitable models, no matter how well intended, are not a long-term solution. What the indigenous peoples of Canada have been calling for is empowerment, the ability to choose their own direction.
Why not look beyond charity and build a two-way connection between the food-rich resources of Canada’s south and the north? A connection, that might start with donated foods but become something greater, an exchange of ideas, aspirations and resources.
I can see individual farmers or perhaps a network of farmers getting involved. With the retail subsidy available to them, the heavy cost of shipping food north would at least partially be addressed and farmers have a long, ingrained knack of getting things done in the most efficient way possible.
From there, some of what the north has to offer might find its way south. One thing to consider is that while indigenous people of Northern Canada are among the most generous of all peoples, they may also be the wariest. Best to begin with small things first, build a bit of trust and then find a way forward as a partnership of equals. ◊