by Benita Y. Tam
University of Toronto, Canada
Traditional foods are vital to cultural identity and the health of Aboriginal peoples . Personal identity, cultural values, skills and spirituality are all associated with the traditional lifestyle in obtaining wild game meat and fish . A decline in a traditional food source may not only impact the physical health of an Aboriginal community, but it may also affect the representation of their culture. Leaders of Cree communities believe harvesting (e.g. hunting, fishing and trapping) to be integral for their cultural and social health . In a Cree community of the eastern James Bay region, a decline in harvesting and bush activity due to hydroelectric development has been found to be related to greater social and health issues . Aboriginal elders may observe the loss of healthy fish with greater significance and value: they may associate this loss with the loss of a traditional method or the loss of the connection between fish and the First Nations. Thus, a loss of a traditional food source such as fishing may have significant health implications on Aboriginal communities.
Aboriginal members of the Ouje-Bougoumou community in the James Bay region, Quebec, Canada have subsisted on fish for a long time from nearby lakes. As a community member reported:
They like eating fish. I know that. My friends from Chibougamau will ask me, did you go fishing? Can I have a few? 
However, in 1999, a documentary revealed the reality of the fish in several lakes of the Ouje-Bougoumou region . It showed elder Albert Mianscum catching fish, and each one he caught was plagued with physical deformities, such as red sores and missing fins and eyes [5, 6]. As a community member reported in an interview several years later:
You got to see the fish, how ugly they look. Their eyes are popping out. Red, red eyeballs. 
The physical deformities were later confirmed to be caused by a fish disease called furunculosis . For Albert Mianscum, and like so many other community members, this was a serious concern as fish was a main source of food for him and his family . Many of the community members of Ouje-Bougoumou believe that the onset of furunculosis was caused by the runoff of nearby mines . Another study found that a combination of stress factors, i.e. climate change and mining contaminants, could have induced the susceptibility of certain fish species to furunculosis . As climate change and contaminants are “affecting the traditional food systems” in the Arctic ; the unhealthy contaminated fish of the James Bay region may be further exacerbated by climate change.
Climate change has been associated to food security issues particularly in Northern Aboriginal communities due to the impact on traditional harvesting activities and financial insecurity [1, 10]. With a growing population of diseased fish in the James Bay region, climate change may further devastate the fish population, putting Aboriginal community members at risk to health issues such as food insecurity.
Food security refers to the adequate access, availability, supply, and utilization of food; also known as the four pillars to food security . Education and knowledge on the health benefits of consuming healthy foods has been established to be other influential components of food security. This term is well defined by the World Food Summit in 1996 (obtained in ):
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
Food insecurity may presumably be the opposite of this definition; where people do not have physical access and/or economic means to a sufficient amount of safe and nutritious food that would provide them a healthy lifestyle. Food insecurity is a condition that can adversely affect the health and well-being of individuals, households, and communities . Harmful consequences of food insecurity include social, physical, and nutritional detriments. A number of studies reveal that those suffering from food insecurity consume an inadequate amount of nutrients on a daily basis . Subsequently, poorer quality dietary intake may lead to many health problems including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes .
Rates of food insecurity for Aboriginal Canadian households are much higher than those of Non-Aboriginal households . A study surveyed three rural Aboriginal communities and compared the rates of food insecurity between the children and adults within the same household . Results show that in the same household, food insecurity rates for children were much higher than their counterparts . Conversely, food insecurity rates for children were lower than their counterparts when examining western households located in southern Canada .
Since game fish is one of the main foods for many Aboriginal members in the Ouje-Bougoumou community , a decline in healthy fish due to contamination and climate change may be detrimental to their overall diet. A decline in access to healthy fish in Ouje-Bougoumou may force community members to consume more store bought foods. Simultaneously, availability of readily consumable foods, e.g. canned foods, has been increasing in the region, with a potential adverse influence on the food choices of community members. The cost of store bought food is also an issue. Substituting game fish in one’s diet can indeed create financial strain for households because a diet based on traditional foods obtained through catching, hunting, and fishing is typically less costly than its sold counterpart. This financial strain can in turn lead to greater food insecurity because it can seriously limit food choices. The decrease in available traditional foods (partly attributable of climate change) coupled with inflated food costs and limited availability in Northern Quebec may be detrimental to the overall health status of Aboriginal members of the Ouje-Bougoumou community. Already, obesity and diabetes mellitus are increasingly prevalent in Canadian Aboriginal communities . Furthermore, in light of the results discussed above, the increasing population of diseased fish can be expected to be especially detrimental for the Ouje-Bougougmou children.
Aboriginal children may be vulnerable to living an unhealthy lifestyle at an early age. Just in the past decade, the rate of diabetes occurring in Aboriginal children has skyrocketed . The prevalence of diseased fish may incite adults to feed their families with bought food rather than with traditional foods. A high caloric diet may chronically debilitate the well-being of the child, causing her, for example, to be at a much greater risk for lifestyle debilitating diseases such as diabetes. With the impacts of climate change, harvesting activities may be less practiced. The transmission of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) may be truncated between the two current generations due to the decline in healthy fish and the increased reliance on a Western lifestyle, leading to greater physical inactivity. “The adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle often accompanies the transition to a modern diet” . And as it has been found, physical inactivity is a risk factor to type 2 diabetes mellitus .
Food insecurity is only one aspect of how climate change may impact the Ouje-Bougoumou community. As climate change is a complex issue, detrimental impacts that many Aboriginal communities face are multifaceted. Climate change does not solely affect the fish population; climate change affects the land and resources that many Aboriginal communities depend on [1, 10]. Thus, not only is their food source affected, but also their homes, lifestyle and possibly their sense of traditional purpose. All of these in turn can have repercussions not only on their physical health, but also on their social, mental, and emotional well-being.
Special thanks to William A. Gough and Leonard Tsuji for their support and assistance.
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