Would you pay $40 for a bag of flour? Some remote First Nations in northern Ontario have no choice
Grocery costs are rising everywhere, but in remote First Nations communities, in-store sticker shock is the norm.
In at least one community, Marten Falls First Nation does not even have a personal shopping store.
In Neskantaga First Nation, about 436 kilometers northeast of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Chief Wayne Moonias said people pay between $40 and $70 for a 20-pound bag of flour and more than $30 for sugar.
That means making a traditional staple like bannock becomes a luxury not everyone in the Ojibway First Nation can afford.
On Thursday, the federal government pledged to spend $4.5 million on Matawa First Nations Management’s Harvesters Support Program to help address food insecurity in remote communities in northwestern Ontario.
The money comes from Nutrition North Canada and will be distributed over 18 months to:
Coordinators are hired in each community with the task of deciding how best to use funds based on the needs of each First Nation.
“It allows for that flexibility,” said David Neegan, executive director of Matawa’s Kiikenomaga Kikenjigewen Employment and Training Services Program. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach … it’s based on community needs.”
For example, he said, in Marten Falls First Nation, there is currently no community store. So when someone runs out of basic necessities – like milk, eggs, meat, diapers or formula – they have to wait for the next plane to arrive and expect high costs, compounded by shipping costs.
However, subsidies can be provided with the Harvesters Support Program to make these prices more manageable.
There are also efforts to improve communities’ access to traditional foods through hunting, harvesting and food sharing, another area where the funds can be deployed.
The hope is that the program will continue to expand, but that’s up to the federal government, Neegan said.
Indigenous peoples living in Canada are more likely to experience food insecurity – defined as a lack of regular access to safe, nutritious food – than non-Indigenous peoples.
A 2018 national survey by the First Nations Information Governance Center found that more than half of Indigenous households are food insecure. According to a study by the University of Toronto, only one in eight Canadian households is food insecure.
Restoration of traditional diets
David Paul Achneepineskum attended boarding schools during his elementary school years and later graduated from Geraldton Composite High School in 1970.
He said one of the things he misses most from home is his family’s kitchen. Being separated from the land meant losing access to traditional food.
“The food was foreign to us. Many people got sick [from] it,” he said of what was being served at the boarding school.
Achneepineskum, chief executive officer of Matawa First Nations Management, said diets among indigenous people continue to be disrupted due to their reliance on processed foods.
He spoke about the health challenges – diabetes, cancer and heart disease – faced by people in remote communities and how they relate to a lack of access to healthy, traditional foods.
But he said he hopes the Harvesters Food Program will fill the nutritional gaps and improve people’s health. For him, a return to traditional teachings and meals is an essential part of it.
Moonias said his 81-year-old father has three or four freezers full of traditional foods, “and that’s how he feeds himself.”
Educating young people about how to harvest the land can help preserve that traditional knowledge and nutrition that has been lost by so many, he said.
Diet may be linked to broader issues facing northern communities, such as advice on boiling water, the housing crisis and mental health, he added.
“In terms of wellbeing, I think it plays a role in how we use the land, how we use the traditional food as our substance, to try to bridge some of the issues that we’re dealing with,” Moonias said .
“This is a good start. This is not the end. I think there is an opportunity to expand and improve that support.”