Food insecurity is a serious public health issue for Canada’s indigenous population [1, 2]. The term “Aboriginal people” describes the three groups that comprise Canada’s indigenous population; First Nations [FN], Métis, and Inuit. First Nations are the largest of these three groups, making up nearly 60% of the Aboriginal population living in Canada with approximately 60% of FN people living off-reserve lands. Data on food security in off-reserve Aboriginal people are alarming; 24% of Aboriginal households had a compromised diet (reduced quality and/or quantity), and 33% experienced food insecurity compared to 8.4% and 9%, respectively across the rest of Canada [3–5]. In on-reserve FN households and Inuit households in Arctic communities the prevalence of food insecurity appears to be even higher. The First Nations Regional Health Survey found just over half (54.2%) of households surveyed were food insecure, while the Inuit Health Survey conducted in 36 Arctic communities found a range of household food insecurity from 45-69% depending on region [6, 7]. Food insecurity in Aboriginal households in Canada has been associated with high levels of poverty, multi-child households, low levels of education attainment and labour force participation, reliance on social assistance/welfare, and female lone-parent households .
Food security challenges faced by Aboriginal people are unique [1, 8–12], especially for Aboriginal people living in remote and isolated communities. Aboriginal food systems are primarily characterized by two avenues of food provision: the harvesting, sharing and consumption of traditional (or country) foods and the purchasing and consumption of market (or commercial or store-bought) foods [11, 12]. Food harvested from the wild by FN people is called “traditional food” while the Inuit call wild-harvested food “country food”. Despite the combination of the traditional food system and market food system as being distinct from the non-Aboriginal food system, current conceptualizations of food security lack the context, food practices, and perspectives of Aboriginal people .
Regardless of evidence that food insecurity is prevalent in Aboriginal communities, little information is known about the characteristics of the individuals or households experiencing this problem . While numerous food system studies have been published on Inuit people living in the Canadian Arctic in recent years [7, 14–23], there are still few food system studies with on-reserve FN communities . Many gaps remain about the nature and extent of food insecurity for FN people in Canada. Lead authors in this field [1, 2, 5] have recommended qualitative studies to better understand the food security situation for FN people. The knowledge gained can help to tailor food security programs and policies to the unique needs of these communities and population [1, 5].
In this study, we explored food insecurity from the perspective of FN adults living in a remote, on-reserve subarctic community in northern Ontario, Canada. Previous work by our group had identified a high prevalence of household food insecurity (70%) using the Household Food Security Survey Module [4, 24]. The intention of this study was to determine participants’ perceptions of food security and the range of adaptive strategies they use at an individual and household level. The two research questions addressed by this study were: (1) “What are the coping strategies for food insecurity used by community members?”; and, (2) “What suggestions do they have to improve food security in their community?”
Community profile and study population
This study was conducted in Fort Albany First Nation which is situated on the west coast of James Bay in the Mushkegowuk Territory along the Albany River in northern Ontario, Canada. As described previously [25, 26], the Fort Albany reserve is home to approximately 850 people. Fort Albany is geographically remote (52° 15′ N; 81° 35′ W); it is accessible only by plane year-round, by boat and barge during the ice-free season, and by ice road after freeze-up. In Canada, a remote community is defined as being more than 350 kilometres from the nearest service centre (or city) having year-round road access. Fort Albany also is categorized as a community with “special access” which means that it is located in a zone where there is no year-round road access to a service centre. Timmins, Ontario is 769 kilometres from Fort Albany and is one of the closest cities with road access. Timmins is considered a main entry point for food distribution to Fort Albany as food is flown from there during most of the year with the exception of 6–8 weeks in the winter when the ice road allows for accessibility to closer communities. One of the communities accessible by ice road is Moosonee, which is 128 kilometres southeast of Fort Albany and has train access. As a result of being remote with special access, transportation of goods into the community of Fort Albany, including commercial food, is very expensive.
At the time of this study, the community had one main grocery store and two small convenience stores. Although traditional foods remain an important part of their diet, the majority of dietary intake is from store bought food. Community members participate in traditional harvesting activities (also referred to as traditional food acquisition) including hunting, fishing, and gathering food from the land. However, these activities have been declining in recent decades, especially for young people. As these endeavours are seasonal, are limited by financial constraints for harvesting transportation and equipment, and the yield varies greatly depending on the success of the harvest, there is much variability in the consumption of traditional foods between households and over the course of the year. Traditional foods commonly harvested and consumed include berries (e.g., ground berries - Gaultheria procumbens), fish (e.g., whitefish - Coregonus clupeaformis), large land-based animals (e.g., moose - Alces alces), game birds (e.g., goose - Branta canadensis interior and Anser caerulescens caerulescens), and small game (e.g., hare - Lepus americanus). Community members live in small houses and many households have extended family living together.
Fort Albany First Nation was an ideal location for this project for a number of reasons: we have established a community advisory committee with broad community representation; have good rapport with the community and school as we have been working on school programs for healthy eating and physical activity for many years; and community members have a keen interest in improving the dietary habits of their population [25–28].