Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
First Nations across the widely-differing regions of Ontario are finding something ominous in common—unpredictable and unexpected changes to food supply tracing back to climate change.
A pattern is emerging through research and interviews conducted on food security with members of the Anishinabek Nation, a representative body for 39 First Nations across the province.
Participants of the recent Lands, Resources, and Economic Development Forum hosted by the Anishinabek Nation heard that climate change is already causing changes in weather patterns leading to increased severity and frequency of forest fires and pest infestations, which in turn is impacting the health of wildlife.
Loss of forest habitat, along with changes in precipitation, is making the land less suitable for hunting and trapping and is increasing the risk of disease among animals, said lawyer Brett Campeau of the Westaway Law Group, which is in the process of producing a report.
Elders told researchers that freeze-up of lakes and rivers is occurring later in the year as the climate warms, migration timing is changing, and animal behaviour is becoming less predictable, Campeau said.
The behaviour changes are making it harder to harvest wildlife, creeks are drying up, and ice-fishing opportunities are shrinking, he told the virtual audience.
Research shows the impact of climate change is likely to be stronger in northern Ontario, and Elders of the Fort William First Nation have said they have already seen changes to plants, waterways, forests, as well as the distribution and wellbeing of wildlife.
“We cannot follow our teachings and use the whole animal because some organs seem contaminated,” an Elder from Biigtigong NIshnaabeg (Pic River First Nation), north of Lake Superior, told researchers. “Climate change makes us and the land ill,” the Elder said.
North of Lake Huron, an Elder of Wahnapitae near Sudbury, said raspberries have looked unhealthy and the size and abundance of blueberries is decreasing.
“It seems like everything is moving further north. That’s going to change what we harvest,” said an Elder from Garden River First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie.
In southern Ontario, food systems are much more impacted by urbanization, Campeau said, describing how community members at some southwestern First Nations, such as Aamjiwnaang, adjacent to oil refineries and petrochemical plants, refuse to eat locally-harvested fish or wildlife.
Fishing is also being impacted by climate change, according to Anishinabek Nation research, Campeau said. At the Georgina Island First Nation on Lake Simcoe there are fewer cold water fish, the colour and temperature of the water has changed, some former bird species are missing, and people have reported rashes after swimming.
Increased water temperature and decreased oxygen levels are leading to decreased water quality for drinking water and fish habitat. Fewer plant, fish, and wildlife species means fewer opportunities for youth to learn traditions around food gathering, one worried Georgina Elder said.
The new research is making it clear “any loss of connectedness to the natural world would be a loss to Anishinaabe identity and culture,” said Campeau, discussing the Elders’ words. Climate change impacts may well pose “a threat to the continuity of traditions and teachings,” he claimed.
It will be important for First Nations to continue on-the-land traditions and practices despite the changing environment, Campeau said.
The purpose of the research is not only to conduct vulnerability studies for First Nations, but also to look for ways to adapt.
“Our First Nations have contributed very little to climate change…but our First Nations are the ones most affected by it,” Anishinabek Nation Grand Chief Reginald Niganobe told the forum participants. “It's important that our First Nations start planning and finding ways to adapt to climate change.”
A number of resiliency strategies are under consideration for the Westaway report, such as community gardens and greenhouses, along with shared butcher services and community freezers, said Cynthia Westaway, director of the law firm.
“There will need to be more attention from our lands advisors and our leadership on how to help bring more funding to the harvesters” to offset the effects of climate change, she explained.
She uses the response to last fall’s disastrous flooding in British Columbia as an example of what can be done. First Nations there have managed to negotiate a lot of financial support for people who haven’t been able to conduct their traditional fishery because of the floods, she said. Maybe more money will be needed to add cell phone towers to make sure harvesters can stay safe in the face of changing weather, she suggested.
Further research will be needed to help communities do more environmental monitoring and flood-plain mapping to better predict and understand climate change effects, Westaway added.
One problem in addressing the effects of climate change is the need for governments to look at environmental effects on First Nations in an interrelated way.
“There is no overarching relationship,” said Westaway. “When we try to go to the Crown to speak, (we are told)...that's not my mandate. They say ‘Well we have to talk to eight other people,’ and they don’t even know who those eight other people are,” she said. First Nations leadership usually does better at looking at the connections between environmental problems, she added.
“We are insisting they develop high level relationship tables where you bring the eight other people with expertise” to discuss strategies for tackling climate change effects.
Lawyers working with First Nations are focusing more and more on the cumulative effects of different environmental stresses when they combine with climate change effects, Westaway said.
The new focus stems largely from a court decision in favour of the Blueberry River First Nation in British Columbia in June 2021.The court decided cumulative effects from various industrial developments had diminished the community’s ability to exercise treaty rights.
Rather than appeal the decision to a higher court, the B.C. government decided to work with Blueberry River by providing $65 million to help with the cumulative impacts, and empower the nation to improve stewardship of the land.
The court decision is good news for First Nations across the country, Westaway said.
“It’s common sense, but we finally have a court that is telling the Crown they have to pay attention to these impacts in the whole region because they are significantly impacting First Nations to a greater extent.
“You’re going to see a lot of (legal) actions across Canada like this now,” she said.
The report on food security and climate change may be completed by the end of March, Campeau told Windspeaker.com. In the meantime, people from Anishinabek First Nations are invited to complete a climate change survey at https://surveymonkey.com/r/ANfoodsecuritysurvey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.