The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Canada’s North

November 20, 2015
by Janina Grabs 
From afar, Canada looks like a role model for overcoming hunger. After all, for years it has been a frontrunner in the Global Food Security Index, which scores countries according to the affordability, availability, and quality of their food. In 2015, it scored seventh out of 109 countries. All the while, food insecurity in the North hovers between 60–75 percent. There are two Canadas. Welcome to the second.

Many Southern Canadians can barely imagine living up North. Understandably so: more than 90 percent of the Canadian population lives within 600 km of the US border. Maps from space show the majority of our territory as a dark, uninhabited landmass delimited in the South by a bright ribbon of lights. What this hides is the multitude of tiny communities scattered among the Northern lakes and forests whose connections to large cities are tenuous—compromising their access to healthy and affordable food.

Take Leaf Rapids, a mid-sized former mining town in Northern Manitoba with around 450 inhabitants. To get here, you fly from Winnipeg to Thompson for two and a half hours. Then, you drive for another four hours. And this town is relatively accessible: it has an all-year road. It’s a scenic place, as resident and community food champion Ervin Bighetty describes: “We are surrounded by trees and beautiful lakes. The summers are hot in the day and really cool at night. The sky is filled with Northern lights during summer and winter.” Despite the beauty, however, the youth of Leaf Rapids desperately want to leave. A lack of jobs and opportunities makes life difficult, and poverty is pervasive.

The town’s off-reserve Indigenous population is especially affected by these problems.

A typical Northern community only has a single grocery store. Food is flown or sea-lifted in, or arrives by truck during winter when the lakes and rivers freeze sufficiently to support vehicles. Food prices are pushed to extreme heights by high transportation costs, compounded by retail monopoly power. The Facebook group “Feeding My Family,” documents grocery store prices as they occur: imagine paying $8.00 for a small head of broccoli, $17.00 for a kilogram of red peppers, or $35.00 for a kilogram of beef. Weekly grocery bills can run up to $600.00. Parents have been known to substitute powdered juice or condensed milk for infant formula, and resort to “tummy fillers” such as pasta and rice to keep their kids from crying from hunger.

The Nutrition North subsidy has been the main federal approach to combating Northern food insecurity, and has recently come under heavy fire by opposition parties and civil society. In an interview with GUTS, Amanda Sheedy from the non-profit Food Secure Canada  explained: “Nutrition North’s first problem is its paltry yearly budget of $60 million. For comparison, we use seventeen million just to clear the snow after one big snowfall in Montreal.” What is especially shocking is that the grocery store prices detailed above already include the subsidy.

Even if more money were invested, it’s unclear whether it would reach those in need. An investigation by the Auditor General found serious fault with Nutrition North’s management: while Harper’s Department for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development provides the subsidy directly to northern retailers, whether they actually pass on the full subsidy to consumers is unverified. The information necessary to manage the program and measure its success has not been collected. Furthermore, eligibility is not based on need, but rather on past usage of a similar program—excluding nearly fifty fly-in, isolated communities requiring assistance.

In response to the Auditor General’s damning evaluation, the NDP put forward a parliamentary motion to fix the Nutrition North program in June 2015. The motion aimed to improve the program’s transparency and accountability, reform eligibility criteria to include the forty-six overlooked communities, and initiate a comprehensive review of Nutrition North with northern residents as full partners. In the end, the motion was defeated, with all but one counter-vote coming from Conservative MPs.

The recent election may provide a desperately needed fresh start: Trudeau’s Liberal government has promised to expand funding by $40 million over four years, and to work with northern residents to make Nutrition North more effective and transparent. However, it is unclear whether these reforms suffice to address the initiative’s fundamental shortcomings.

For one thing, disparate power structures remain in place. Almost 60 percent of total funding goes to one corporation, the North West Company (NWC), which holds the monopoly on food sales in many Northern communities. According to Sheedy, “In some places, even social assistance checks are distributed through the NWC. There are stories where residents’ checks were withheld until after they had shopped there, with the amount owed being directly subtracted. This exemplifies the patronizing approach the government has taken in dealing with Indigenous peoples.”

The Canadian Government’s singular focus on food provision significantly disregards food sovereignty, described by the grassroots movement La Via Campesina as: “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” There are seven pillars to the concept of food sovereignty: it focuses on food for people, rather than commodification; it builds on traditional and modern knowledge and skills; it works with nature; it supports sustainable livelihoods of food providers; it localizes food systems; it places control in local hands; and it recognizes that food is, in Indigenous terms, sacred. Instead of enforcing dependency and paternalism, food sovereignty thus emphasizes self-production and community empowerment.

This is where Andi Sharma comes in. Named one of Manitoba’s “40 under 40,” Sharma is an energetic twenty-nine year-old who started her career in financial securities, but soon became involved in community organizing. As an independent social researcher, she is passionate about finding ways to improve food access for some of Canada’s most marginalized individuals and populations. Her work on local initiatives seeking to reinvent Manitoba’s food system has put her home province on the global food sovereignty map, and was recently discussed at the World Food System Conference in Switzerland.

Northern Manitoban Indigenous communities face unique challenges to their food sovereignty. Many residents do not qualify for “Registered Indian” status, which under the Indian Act of 1876 exempts First Nations communities (not including Inuit and Métis peoples) from many provincial laws and grants them access to federal support and land. Thus, despite their Indigenous heritage, they are bound by provincial regulations that severely curtail their customary lifestyle and food practices, including the possibility to hunt, share, and market game. Food safety regulations, for instance, prevent this hunted and harvested food—“country food”—from being used in school food programs, and make it difficult to sell without having been processed. Furthermore, any outreach work has to be done within the social context of life in poor, isolated communities that often struggle with educational, mental health, and substance-abuse issues.

How does one even begin to tackle that multi-faceted challenge?

A potential starting point is  re-acquainting Indigenous children with their heritage. Sharma’s favourite success story involves a little boy who participated in the Ithinto Mechisowin (Food from the Land) program, where educators from the O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation teach hunting and gathering skills to local youth. Such initiatives can rekindle a spirit of belonging to an ancestral community. This is a powerful need for children who have little recollection of the traditions that were suppressed by brutal colonial practices such as the residential school system: “The boy exclaimed that he felt closer to his môhkom [grandma] and mosôm [grandpa],” Sharma happily described. “What was even more exciting was that he wanted to adopt the traditional land stewardship principle to consider the impact of his actions for seven generations. It was so beautiful to see this little kid be not only reconnected to his ancestry, but also thinking about the future of his line.”

Navigating this future is a complex task, however. For one thing, economic development has changed much of the landscape in the North. Hydroelectric dams shift river flows and change spawning patterns of fish. Communities are resettled on land they have no connection to; land that is infertile and isolated. The O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation was relocated when the 1975 Churchill River Diversion caused water levels of the local Southern Indian Lake to rise by several meters; this move changed their food ecosystem so drastically that consequences are still felt today. Their food sovereignty continues to be painstakingly regained in the face of an ever-evolving landscape.

This reclamation is made even harder by climate change. “There are myriad ways in which they notice the shift in weather patterns,” said Sharma. “For instance, the caribou have changed their migratory routes which had been mapped out and passed on from generation to generation. It’s questionable whether the resources and skills are available to re-map the tracks, or whether it’s even worth the effort if they remain so unpredictable.” Herd numbers have also shown a troubling decline. In Yukon, swamps and lakes were a part of a vibrant ecosystem that attracted migratory birds and fish. Now, the permafrost has melted, all the water sunk into the ground, and the wildlife has disappeared.

These environmental changes, in addition to knowledge loss and high prices for fuel and equipment, have made hunting more of an exception rather than the rule among many Indigenous communities. Instead, people tend to purchase calorie-dense, processed food items. As children grow up, their tastes adjust to what they know. “A big hurdle is introducing traditional and healthy foods to kids that are used to pizza pops and chicken fingers. Kale grows really well up North, for instance, but kale chips have a hard time competing with frozen pizza,” Sharma acknowledged, laughing.

Sharma also identified a complex issue: How does an outsider try to change the food habits of communities without continuing the patronizing, post-colonial relationship that has characterized North-South exchanges?

According to Sharma, you don’t. “Instead, it’s best to identify community food champions in each town that have an interest in food sovereignty and help build their capacities. They will then reach out within the community and get a movement going. That is the best way to ensure that projects are developed and owned by the communities themselves.” This approach mirrors Food Secure Canada’s call for Northern Community Food Coordinators. Acting at a local level, they can inform provincial and national-level policymakers about what is needed on the ground. Such a combined top-down and bottom-up approach has shown great promise in community health initiatives. It helps to make policy relevant and simultaneously coordinate grassroots efforts—and thereby fulfils food sovereignty’s goal of putting control over food systems in local hands.

Ervin Bighetty is one such community food champion. A member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, Bighetty is in his early twenties and lives in Leaf Rapids. Here, the local school collaborated with the community to set up the Grow Success program, a greenhouse and gardening project with a strong focus on skill-sharing. Repurposing the site of an abandoned trailer park, the volunteers—lead by Bighetty—first had to clear the site and recover the soil before planting could start. Bighetty recalls starting out on the suggestion of friend and mentor Chuck Stensgard: “He said there isn’t money for me to pay you, but I will cook you food and help you learn to grow your own garden. I wanted to do it, because Chuck is a wise man. He can see things that others may not. I love to learn, and his guidance has really made a difference in my life and many others.” Horticultural knowledge, both theoretical and practical, is a fixed part of the school’s curriculum, so it is common to see local youth mulling about the fields with enthusiasm: “They all want to see their own plants grow and learn how to grow their own gardens,” said Bighetty. “Us teaching them how to do this is important. This is a life skill that a lot of people should have. It’s one of the easiest things to learn, when you have it, you never lose it.” Indeed, the initiative that started in 2006 has been so popular that it has spread beyond the borders of Leaf Rapids: in events such as the annual Grow North Conference and the provincially-funded Root Camp, many surrounding communities have been inspired to build their own school gardens.

Today, Leaf Rapids’ Churchill River Nursery contains an acre of planting area containing thirty-five plots, two greenhouses, a school laboratory, and a research centre where seed varieties are tested for local conditions in collaboration with the Bauta Family Institute on Canadian Seed Security. “They’ve had particular success with all kinds of cabbage, but also strawberries,” Sharma explained. “The garden had a huge harvest, and distributed around 10,000 seedlings to people from the community. Also, there is a strong focus on traditional crops such as the Three Sisters—beans, squash, and corn.” While not originally grown this far North, they were part of the typical diet of Northern Indigenous communities through trading with the Wyandot peoples who settled around southern Ontario and Quebec. Nowadays, as growing seasons slowly expand—as a result of natural and human activity-induced climate change—a wider variety of traditional and modern foods can be incorporated in the rotation.

Another key to success is to identify the most promising participants in such labour-intensive projects. Often these are women who have taken on a central role in the Northern food sovereignty movement. “I would estimate that around 75 percent of our food network members are female. I think women are often those who are driven to act by the injustices in the food system, or when they are unable to put enough food on the table for their children,” Sheedy asserted. “This has been impressively demonstrated with the Feeding My Family movement, which was started by women in Nunavut.” The group now has around 24,500 Facebook members, and has staged media-effective protests in several communities. In Iqaluit alone, 2014 saw the fifth protest in three years against overpriced, low-quality food products sold at the local supermarket. The campaign is a powerful sign of the continued struggle the community faces.

Given that women are the keepers of knowledge in matrilineal Indigenous communities, it often falls to them to pass on skills related to harvesting and cooking country food—and they do so with vigour. Sharma recalled: “When I went on a traditional fishing trip to learn about the Ithinto Mechisowin program, it was with three elders: Elder Margaret, Elder Juliet, and Chief Baker. Though the male chief was present, it struck me that the knowledge keepers were absolutely the two women elders. They were showing me how to fillet the fish, how to pound the pemmican, how you mix in the lard in… all these traditional aspects of food security were coming from these two women. This is indicative of the larger food security movement that is happening in Indigenous communities. Women are the ones that get things done. They are the ones driving the movement.”

Looking into the future, Sheedy and Sharma agree that there are still many areas that need work. First, consistently adapting legislation and regulations to local contexts would boost the effectiveness and simplify the work of civil society-led and provincial programs. For instance, including hunting equipment in the items subsidized by Nutrition North and widening food safety standards to traditional preparation methods could foster the re-establishment of Indigenous skills and tastes, while strengthening schools’ food security. Second, funding—both in terms of absolute amounts and funding cycle lengths—is a huge concern for virtually all actors involved in building a more resilient Northern food system.

But one thing is clear—food sovereignty programs that empower and engage communities are the future. In Sheedy’s words, “There is this fine balance that needs to be struck between seeking community-based solutions to the food crisis but also understanding that we can’t just leave these communities to their own devices.” The key to eradicate Canada’s last pockets of hunger, then, is to communicate, share, and collaborate on ideas that work. Ervin Bighetty, Amanda Sheedy, and Andi Sharma have already begun.


Janina Grabs is a researcher and writer on sustainable food and agriculture. She is pursuing a PhD in global sustainability governance, and is currently based in Costa Rica investigating the impacts of certifications and direct trade in the coffee value chain. She also writes the blog Food Policy For Thought, which aims to expose the fascinating stories behind everyday food production and consumption.


Image by: Andi Sharma

“Home-Grown Hunger” is from our FOOD/LAND Issue (fall 2015) 


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