By David McRobert and Tyler F. M. Edwards
Like many Canadians we were “shocked and appalled” in May 2012 when the federal government vigorously attacked United Nations special rapporteur on food security, Olivier De Schutter, after he released his report on his trip across Canada. His observations led him to express ‘extremely severe’ concerns about food deserts in many parts of urban and rural Canada and the ability of aboriginal people and families on social assistance to afford the food they need to stay healthy.
Canadians who have worked “North of 60 degrees” or even visited the Arctic or the northern regions of the provinces understand that De Schutter was not fabricating a “Food Story”; indeed, for aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations dwelling in Canada’s North, life can be very difficult. Harsh environmental conditions are exacerbated by poverty, contaminated drinking water, unreliable and pricey shipping of goods from the rest of the country, monopolistic controls, a lack of housing, and other social issues. These factors take an especially harsh toll on the nutrition of people living in these communities, where healthy food is very expensive and soft drinks and junk food are cheap.
The ongoing crisis at the Attawapiskat First Nations Reserve in northern Ontario, where dozens of aboriginal resident have lived in appalling conditions for decades, erupted onto the international scene in November 2011, reminding Canadians of the injustices that our First Nations peoples face. Even after a state of emergency was declared in December 2011 and the federal government promised action, many people in that community continue to lack adequate shelter, and living conditions remain difficult.
Attawapiskat is an extreme example, but it draws attention to the difficulties of life in the far North. Canada’s Inuit, for example, have an average life expectancy thirteen years lower than that of the general Canadian populace, and their infant mortality rate is three times higher than the national average.
There are many contributing factors to the health problems faced by the people of Canada’s North, but diet is one of the biggest. Fresh vegetables and fruit are so expensive to obtain that many southern Canadians who venture north to make a new life return home after only a few years, or in some cases, a few months.
Food insecurity also is a major problem for northern communities. A 2005 study showed that 30 per cent of Inuit children aged six to fourteen had experienced hunger at some point in their lives.
During the winter months, fresh food and milk are mainly delivered to these areas via ice roads, but with global warming, these roads are threatened by thaws, making fresh food harder to come by and driving up the prices.
Food prices are such a problem that the yearly healthy food budgets for many people in the First Nations and Inuit communities of the far North exceed their annual income. As a result, the residents of these regions often choose the cheapest options available to them, even when those options are unhealthy.
This is true of drinks as well as food. Soft drinks are a popular choice in northern communities because they’re cheap and widely available. In the Arctic, cola is delivered on ships supported by the Canadian Cost Guard, which are more reliable than the ice roads. Cola also tends to be less perishable than things like milk.
Another factor in making pop a common choice is the water quality in many of the impoverished communities; water supplies often suffer from water contamination issues. But while soft drinks are safer than water contaminated by E. coli bacteria, they can cause health problems of their own.
Heavy cola consumption has been linked to obesity, diabetes, dental problems, and osteoporosis. Recent years have seen an explosion of obesity and diabetes among the residents of northern aboriginal communities, and heavy consumption of cola is likely a leading cause of this.
This past summer my 22 year-old daughter worked as part of a literacy program for young First Nation teens in a remote northern Ontario community. On her return home she observed that many young teens drank soft drinks and ate chocolate bars for breakfast, and she was shocked to learn dozens had lost many teeth and some were wearing dentures. Moreover, when she made an effort to encourage greater consumption of milk, most children found the taste strange and would not drink it.
To solve the dietary issues of those in northern communities, we must help the communities attack the base causes of the issues, but that’s easier said than done. There are a wide number of complex issues contributing to the problem. For instance, many aboriginal communities are still suffering the negative social and psychological after-effects of colonization and the residential school system.
Furthermore, the rest of the country is often all too willing to turn a blind eye to the economic, social and health challenges faced by northerners and northern communities. This will have to change if the population of the north is to achieve the quality of life it deserves.
For example, more Inuit could be employed as part of a combined military and environmental protection force to address the inevitable increase in marine traffic that will be associated with the rapid decay of the Arctic ice sheet due to climate change. This would provide greater economic security for communities.
Technologies are available to provide clean, treated water to aboriginal peoples in refillable aluminum and plastic containers. This, along with greater access to fresh and skim milk and low-calorie juices, ought to be a priority for the federal Departments of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and Health, and their provincial and territorial equivalents.
If we fail to help First Nation communities address these dietary and economic challenges, hundreds more vital aboriginal peoples will die well before their time, and tremendous knowledge and expertise amongst community elders may not be transferred. This could mean that even more communities will follow in the tragic footsteps of Attawapiskat.
David McRobert is an environmental lawyer based in Toronto and Peterborough and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Tyler Edwards is a Toronto writer and can be reached at email@example.com McRobert worked on aboriginal land claims and oil and gas development in the Mackenzie Delta, Beaufort Sea and the Yukon in the 1980s.
This is a revised version of an essay that appears in McRobert’s new book, My Municipal Recycling Program made me fat and sick: How well intentioned environmentalists teamed up with the soft drink industry to promote obesity and injure workers (June 2012) It is available in hard copy or as a Kindle from Amazon.com