UN explores food security on Alberta reserve

A UN expert on food security is on a fact-finding mission to study the changing diet of First Nations people in Alberta.

Aboriginal groups say increased development in northern Alberta has changed the way they hunt, fish and eat

Howard Mustus was born on the Alexis First Nation 33 years ago. Growing up on the reserve, he remembers when most of his family’s food came from hunting, fishing and collected eggs.

In recent years, however, Mustus says he’s seen a drastic change in the food supply.

"When you go and get a moose and you go to open it up, a smell that comes off it. The fat looks very sickly, a yellowish colour .. the organs like the lungs have lesions and scars on it."

"That comes from what they’re ingesting."

Howard Mustas says development is chipping away at traditional hunting grounds resulting in unhealthy diets. (CBC)

Mustus puts the blame on increased development around the reserve. He says animals are have started becoming sick after oil and gas companies moved nearby. Couple that with summer villages nearby drawing more water from the local lakes and rivers, which means less fish, he said.

"We were a happy people. Now it seems that we fight for everything we get," Mustus said.

Francis Alexis, former chief of the Alexis First Nation, agrees. He says with less land to hunt and fish on, and fewer animals on that land, many Aboriginal people in Alberta are forced to eat cheap, processed food.

"Our diet has changed. Our way of life has changed and the environment has changed," Alexis said.

"Instead of traditional foods and natural food they eat store-bought foods … we’re starting to see the health effects."


'A very dire situation'

Those health effects are one of the things that Olivier De Schutter has come to Canada to investigate.

As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, De Schutter travels the world investigating how government deal with food security issues.

His visit to Canada, to First Nations in Manitoba and now to the Alexis reserve in Alberta, is the first time De Schutter has studied food issues in a developed country.

"In Canada we have about 900,000 households that are food insecure," he said.  "And we have one million status First Nations people who are in a very dire situation."

De Schutter says income inequality is a big issue in Canada and is getting worse. That leaves many people without the means to afford healthy food, instead relying on cheap processed foods that lack the same nutritional value.

Olivier De Schutter will present the results of his Canadian fact-finding mission to the UN in 2014. He hopes that it will prompt local governments to take action. (CBC)

That, in turn, leads to a variety of health problems — among them obesity and related diseases. De Schutter says those costs are putting a strain on the country’s healthcare system. And Aboriginal groups are among the hardest hit.

"These are groups of the population which, although the nation as a whole may be wealthy and rich, are not in a position to have access to a healthy diet."

The rapporteur says the food is subsidized on some reserves but it is often not enough to make up with the increased cost of living that people in remote First Nations have to deal with.

De Schutter's fact-finding mission also takes him to Quebec and Ontario, after which he will submit his final report to the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. He hopes his findings will encourage federal and provincial governments to take a hard look at the options available on reserves.

Francis Alexis says that change can’t come soon enough - and hopes that Aboriginal people will have a say in any changes.

"Pay more attention to the elders and the First nations people. We know about the land, we know about the land, we know what happens out there," Alexis said.