In the last 100 years, food has changed for all Canadians. Very few people eat the same foods that their grandparents or great-grandparents consumed. Some First Nations still eat country foods on a daily basis, while others have moved away from their traditional diets.
For many Indigenous people, hunting wild game and harvesting local plants provides a healthy, affordable, and sacred connection to their ancestors, and to the land itself.
Traditional foods have many benefits. Harvesting can be more affordable than buying food, especially in remote areas. Most wild meat, fish and plants are rich in nutrients and contribute to good health, while hunting and foraging can increase physical fitness. Eating together can also encourage closer-knit families and communities. On a larger scale, ceremonies, feasts, potlatches and events featuring traditional foods are a source of pride – connecting Indigenous people to their spiritual and cultural identities.
Wild game hunted / foraged in Canada’s North
Rich in protein
High in protein and iron.
Low in saturated fat.
Excellent source of
protein, iron and
vitamins A & C.
iron and B vitamins.
Highly nutritious source
of vitamins, minerals
Lean protein source.
Provides vitamin A for
healthy eyes and bones.
Excellent source of
protein and B vitamins.
Excellent source of iron.
Helps to prevent fatigue
Good source of potassium.
vitamin D. Good for
Excellent source of
vitamin B12. Can lower
risk of heart disease.
Important source of
omega-3 fatty acids.
Good source of vitamin C.
Rich in collagen and
Rich in B vitamins.
Helps to build and
repair body tissues.
High in fatty acids,
High in vitamin C and fibre.
Many berries also have
High in protein and
low in fat. Good source of
many important minerals.
restaurants in Canada
Art Napoleon travels to his home reserve near the upper Peace Valley to see first hand how booming resource development is changing the north and impacting the role traditional foods.
Local and global
Wild game has fed and sustained Canada’s First Nations for centuries.
Aboriginal harvesting rights are protected under Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act. Aboriginal rights apply to:
- Status Indians
- Non-status Indians
- First Nations
These rights typically apply only to the ancestral territory of an individual’s Aboriginal community. Harvesting rights can include fishing, hunting, trapping, gathering plants and harvesting wood.
In 2016, Alberta earned $18 million in revenue from the combined sale of hunting licenses, draw applications and outdoor ID cards.
First Nations history
with wild game
Hunting and harvesting are deeply ingrained in First Nations culture.
Canada’s Indigenous communities have always hunted, trapped and collected traditional foods for survival, but also for economic, social and spiritual purposes. Harvesting wild game and plants used natural resources in a sustainable way. Communities collected what they needed, without compromising delicate ecosystems, or the ability of future generations to grow and thrive. In fact, many tribes even used controlled burning of the land to regenerate the feeding grounds of animals.
For many First Nations communities, hunting is still an essential activity. While few people living in southern Canada can survive on hunting, gathering and trapping (due to urbanization), First Nations in the northern part of the country continue to harvest wild game and plants for food and income.
Cultural and economic
Harvesting wild game was traditionally a natural and even sacred activity for most Canadian First Nations.
With urbanization, climate change, industrial activities and cultural and economic shifts, eating wild game has now become more complicated. At the same time, widespread access to traditional foods has also changed. Hunger is prevalent among some northern communities. In these places, simply accessing enough affordable, safe, healthy food overrides most discussions of food sustainability.
1. Environmental / conservation concerns
Habitat loss and destruction
Caribou are one of the most important traditional foods for northern communities. Canadian law dictates that caribou ranges must contain 65% undisturbed land. In some parts of northwestern Alberta, for example, these ranges have a 95% disturbance rate.
Industrial activities like forestry, mining, oil and gas exploration, and pulp and paper processing have drastically changed wild game habitat and the natural balance between predators and prey.
Should First Nations sell wild game?
First Nations have a legal right to harvest and hunt in their ancestral lands, but declining game populations are raising questions about selling country foods. A market in Iqaluit, for example, sells caribou, seabirds, seaweed and seal brought in by Inuit hunters. Selling animal products that were previously only for personal use, or part of a small trade and barter economy, is causing concerns about:
- The safety of uninspected meat
- Over-hunting game animals to meet a growing demand
At the same time, the cost of running a snowmobile and funding a hunting expedition continue to rise. Selling extra goods offsets those costs. Keeping hunters active, connected to the land, and in touch with their roots is also another cultural cornerstone. In communities where food is scarce and expensive, hunting and harvesting prevents people from going hungry.
Wild versus farmed caribou and other game animals
Game farming is the practice of raising formerly non-domesticated animals such as deer, elk, caribou, reindeer, moose, and ostriches for their meat, hides, feathers and antlers. Only Newfoundland and Nova Scotia allow the sale of wild game. Outside of these provinces, any game meat that appears in a butcher shop or a restaurant menu has come from a farm.
2. Hunger and malnutrition
Food prices in Canada’s three territories and northern provincial areas are considerably higher than other parts of the country. Some of these communities are only accessible by air for much of the year, so fresh produce and other perishable goods must be flown in. Electricity, freezing, and storage costs can also be high.
Northern First Nations communities often face disproportionately high food costs, compared to the rest of the country. The average, weekly cost of groceries for a family of four is $216 in Alberta’s First Nations. Southern Alberta has the lowest bill, at $168, while northern Alberta First Nations families pay $377 per week to buy groceries.
Food security is a combination of three elements:
People are considered food secure when they have availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.United Nations World Food Programme
Food insecurity in Canada’s north
Of the people in Nunavut are food insecure – the highest food insecurity rates of any Indigenous population in a developed country
Of Inuit preschoolers
are severely food insecure
$19,760 per year
The average cost of groceries for a Nunavut family of four
$20,000 per year
Almost half of Inuit adults
earn less than this
3. An iconic traditional food
You can find caribou in all provinces and territories, except for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. The Peary and Barren ground caribou are found in the Territories and the far north, while the Woodland caribou inhabit regions south of the tundra.
B.C. has about 51 Woodland caribou herds with 19,000 animals. They are divided into four categories, based on their genetics, appearance, behaviour, and geographical distribution. These categories include: southern mountain, central mountain, northern mountain, and boreal.
Caribou are bigger than deer, but smaller than elk and moose and are a decidedly northern species that thrive in the cold. They are also a traditional food source for First Nations living in northern parts of the country.
Many northern Canadian caribou herds are declining. They are under threat from habitat loss, changes to their natural environment, and more predator populations. The northern mountain caribou in BC, for example, are listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
Habitat loss is the greatest threat to Canadian wildlife species, which threatens game harvesting and many traditional foods. Logging has eliminated many of the old-growth forests that support caribou. Grassland birds have also declined by 69%, due to pesticide use and habitat loss.
Tighter regulations and international agreements are beginning to reduce environmental contaminants, but many northern ecosystems still have high levels of organic pollutants, heavy metals and radionuclides. Toxins travel north in wind and water currents. They’re first absorbed by low-level organisms, then bigger fish and mammals. The toxins become increasingly concentrated (or biomagnified) in animal tissues as they move up the food chain. That’s why a whale, seal or walrus can have contaminant levels over a million times higher than water.
Oil and gas and forestry operations in northern Canada can threaten traditional food sources. In 2014, the National Energy Board allowed several oil exploration companies to conduct seismic blasting in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. Local Inuit opposed the permit, due to concerns about marine life protection and their own food sovereignty.
Art joins his son on a scouting mission to survey the impact of industrial development on First Nations access to traditional food and understand the issues facing northern communities.
Art searches for solutions that balance industrialization while respecting sustainable traditional food sources.
First Nations have always had a sacred relationship with the land.
From childhood, communities teach even their youngest members to respect and give thanks to the animals, birds, plants, water and land that they depend on. Almost all First Nations have rituals and ceremonies to thank the animals they take through hunting or trapping. Indigenous people have always understood the need to care for nature’s balance, taking only what they need and protecting and enhancing the richness of the land in all its forms.
Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts of water, air and fire.Assembly of First Nations
First Nations peoples have a special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity. It is also based on the subsistence needs and values extending back thousands of years. Hunting, gathering, and fishing to secure food includes harvesting food for self, family, the elderly, widows, the community, and for ceremonial purposes. Everything is taken and used with the understanding that we take only what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it so that future generations will not be put in peril. Assembly of First Nations
6 Ways to support sustainable wild game and traditional food access
Do your part to fight climate change. Many wild species, like caribou, depend on winter snowpacks and seasonal migration routes for food and habitat. Reduce your carbon footprint and support activities, legislation and practices that slow and prevent climate change.
Whenever possible, continue traditional harvesting and hunting practices. In addition, local Indigenous food sovereignty organizations often host feasts featuring country foods. These may be open to the public, giving everyone a chance to connect and learn.
Understand the cumulative impacts of habitat loss, pollution and other issues in your own region. Get involved and write to your MLA and MP about issues that impact wild game and their environment.
Be a wise recreational user. Know your environment (even when traveling outside your local area) and avoid recreational activities in sensitive regions where wildlife could be negatively affected.
Be a responsible hunter. Be clean, minimize waste and pack out anything you bring in. Keep the land as you found it, and take care of the environment around you.