Chapter 3: North

First Nations in Canada have a rich food history. For centuries, Indigenous people survived on what the land provided – and the land could be very generous. Traditional foods, which are often called country foods, enriched First Nations’ culture, values, health, well-being and social practices. Each region and season provides different species, but all of Canada’s First Nations harvested a variety of wild meats, fish, birds, plants and berries.

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.

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

  • Caribou

    Rich in protein
    and niacin.

  • Moose

    High in protein and iron.
    Low in saturated fat.

  • Deer

    Excellent source of
    iron and
    vitamins A & C.

  • Seabirds

    Provide protein,
    iron and B vitamins.

  • Seaweed
    & kelp

    Highly nutritious source
    vitamins, minerals
    and protein.

  • Seal

    Lean protein source.
    Provides vitamin A for
    healthy eyes and bones.

  • Fish eggs

    Excellent source of
    protein and B vitamins.

  • Clams

    Excellent source of iron.
    Helps to prevent fatigue
    and illness.

  • Muskox

    Good source of potassium.

  • Walrus

    Provides oil-soluble
    vitamin D.
    Good for
    healthy bones.

  • Cod

    Excellent source of
    vitamin B12.
    Can lower
    risk of heart disease.

  • Arctic

    Important source of
    omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Narwhal

    Good source of vitamin C.

  • Beluga

    Rich in collagen and
    vitamin C.

  • Duck

    Rich in B vitamins.
    Helps to build and
    repair body tissues.

  • Ptarmigan

    High in fatty acids,
    protein, fatty acids,
    and minerals.

  • Berries

    High in vitamin C and fibre.
    Many berries also have
    medicinal properties.

  • Reindeer

    High in protein and
    low in fat. Good source of
    many important minerals.

Indigenous flavours vary from coast to coast, with delicious nuances in every region. The 12 restaurants featured on the map below are all owned or run by Indigenous chefs. Visit one near you and taste some of Canada’s best traditional and modern Indigenous cuisine.

Art Napoleon

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.

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
  • Inuit
  • Métis

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.

Simple icons illustrate some of the tools and practices of traditional harvests: hunting and trapping game, fishing, foraging, and harvesting wood

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.

On the ice, two people set about harvesting the walrus that they have successfully hunted
A male elk tilts its head back to call out, its breath forming a cloud in the cold air

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.

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.

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.

Three caribou trot across scrubland

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.

A man sits on a snowmobile with a sled hitched behind it, the flat snow stretching out behind him into the distance

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.

A caribou looks out from its pen

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:

Food must consistently be available in sufficient quantities. Considers local stock and production, and the capacity to import what’s needed, through trade or aid.
People must be able to regularly acquire enough food through purchase, home production, barter, gifts, borrowing or aid.
Food must have a positive nutritional impact on people. Includes cooking, storage, hygiene, health, water, sanitation, and household feeding and sharing practices.
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

  • 68%

    Of the people in Nunavut are food insecure – the highest food insecurity rates of any Indigenous population in a developed country

  • 68%

    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

The challenges of a changing diet

Researchers often highlight the health risks associated with a nutrition transition from traditional Indigenous foods to a westernized diet. This shift usually includes more processed food and drinks, and fewer country foods.

Canadian studies show that Indigenous foods typically have more nutrients and less fat, sodium and carbohydrates than market foods. When the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study examined traditional foods in BC aboriginal communities, they found that dietary quality improved on days when people consumed traditional foods.

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.

A lone caribou trots across 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.

Herd decline

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.


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.

Northern Canada
Resource extraction

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.

Resource Extraction
Art Napoleon

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.

Alberta First Nations Food Security Strategy

In 2014, an Alberta Food Security Working Group held community and stakeholder consultations. They identified five main strategies:

Access / delivery systems
  • Sharing information about food access
  • Creating a food bus that brings fresh food and produce to areas without access
  • Operating community general stores stocked with healthy, affordable food
  • A subsidized Good Food Box program for those in need
  • Encouraging local agriculture
Education / skills
  • Learning to prepare and grow healthy foods
  • Smoking and preserving seasonal food
  • Creating business plans for food initiatives
  • Policy advocacy
Policy changes
  • Restrict unhealthy food in schools, band offices, government buildings
  • Policies to protect land, water and people
  • Advocate for policy changes at all government levels
  • Introduce food subsidies and new social assistance rates
  • Elders and keepers of traditional food knowledge
  • Leadership that supports food security programs
  • Community members with knowledge about food security
  • Nutritionists to work in communities and schools
  • Equipment for preserving and harvesting food
  • Greenhouses to prolong the growing season
  • Community gardens
  • Private gardens
  • Community providers who share what they hunt and fish
  • Community freezers
  • Soup kitchens
  • Planting fruit trees

Government sponsored projects

Nutrition North Canada
Introduced in 2011, this federal government program subsidizes healthy produce and nutritious, perishable foods. Some early critics said it failed to cover what it should. In 2016, engagement sessions were held with northern communities to gather ideas and strategies for improvement.
Habitat conservation
In 2017, then-premier Christy Clark pledged $27 million to protect northern BC caribou. Clark said the money would be used to enhance habitat protection, increase research and monitoring, control predator management, and support a maternal penning project. Penning was initiated by West Moberly & Saulteau First Nations.
Alberta plan to restore habitat
In 2016, the Alberta government also announced a five-year plan to protect caribou. The province is working with the oil and gas industry to restore 10,000 km of forest land that was cleared for seismic lines. The plan also includes tree planting and restoring legacy seismic lines in the Little Smoky and A La Peche caribou herds.
Wolf culling
In 2015, the BC provincial government began a four-year wolf culling program designed to save endangered caribou. Alberta has had a similar program for nearly 10 years. Both governments say that killing wolves is a viable way to protect declining caribou herds. Critics say it’s inhumane, and it doesn’t address the widespread habitat degradation that has threatened caribou in the first place.

Apply traditional, ecological knowledge

A report from the Doig River First Nation, Firelight Group and David Suzuki Foundation showed that using traditional, First Nations ecological knowledge can help to protect caribou. Multi-generational stories, practical knowledge about hunting and trapping, and cultural and spiritual practices relating to caribou offer important ways to support declining populations.

A caribou stands in sparse scrubland at dawn

Hunting other species

Some researchers have suggested that hunting deer and moose can help to protect threatened caribou. The combination of logging, climate change and forest fires have replaced large trees with light shrubbery that can attract moose and deer. With more shrubs to graze on, these animal populations can grow, spread into caribou territory, and attract the predators, which hunt them.

A man holds the massive antlers of a bull moose that has been sucessfully hunted
Art Napoleon

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.
  • Support and get involved with advocacy organization such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Committee, BC Wildlife Federation and Ducks Unlimited Canada.
  • 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.
Art Napoleon

Art searches for solutions that balance industrialization while respecting sustainable traditional food sources.