Traditional food in Canada's Inuit regions is becoming harder to get, leading to a "critical situation," according to a new study.

Published in the Journal of Circumpolar Health, the study places some of the blame on climate change, and urges communities to be ready to adapt to changing diets.

"We need to do something about it," said Laurie Chan, one of the authors.  

Laurie Chan

Laurie Chan is a University of Ottawa researcher who says Inuit are eating fewer traditional foods partly because of climate change. (University of Ottawa)

"Engagement of the local community to develop something that is feasible locally, and acceptable by the people is important," he said, adding that governments have to work with community leaders and researchers to make that happen.

Chan — who teaches biology at the University of Ottawa — and his colleagues at the University of Northern British Columbia looked at the diets of people living in 36 Inuit communities across three regions in Canada, to predict what would happen if traditional food intake dropped by 50 per cent.

In Nunatsiavut, participants said they now eat less fish, seal, and birds and caribou. Hunting from the George River caribou herd has been banned since 2013.

'Especially vulnerable' to climate change

Chan says people living there are "especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change," and the loss of traditional food in their diet will have a "major impact on the good nutrient intake among the people." 

"The threat to the food system is quite critical," he said.  "We need to work closely with the local government bodies to really address it, and develop good programs to make sure it doesn't worsen."

"Because country food, like caribou, fish, and duck is very nutritious compared to some of the market food items like potato chips, spaghetti, and things like that." 

Caribou near Meadowbank Gold Mine

The Newfoundland and Labrador government banned killing caribou from the George River herd in 2013. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The report calls for more public education around substituting species, and promoting regional sharing networks.  

It also floats the idea of a co-management agency on food security as it pertains to climate change.

In Nunatsiavut, communities are already taking steps toward improving food security in the region.

Along Labrador's north coast, people are growing their own produce in both greenhouses and their own homes. There are community freezers stocked with country foods, and hunters travel to Gros Morne National Park to bring back moose. 

But Chan's study, and its insistence on having appropriate replacements for missing country food comes alongside another report looking at Indigenous diets — this one from the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Mercury another concern

Writing in the article Managing Mercury Exposure in Northern Canadian Communities, researchers say Aboriginal people living in Canada's north are at greater risk of having elevated mercury levels because of their reliance on country food, especially fish and marine mammals. 

Focusing on health care, the report says current Canadian clinical guidelines on mercury aren't adequate because they don't account for the different risks and lifestyles in Indigenous communities.

Catherine Pirkle

Catherine Pirkle is one of the authors of a study on managing mercury levels in Canada's north. (Univesity of Hawaii)

In fact, Catherine Pirkle, one of the authors, says there are very few guidelines to begin with.

"And the ones that are out there were conceived and developed specifically for southern, more urban Canadian populations who typically rely on commercial retailers or grocery stores for their food," she said. 

Pirkle, who is with the Office of Public Health at the University of Hawaii, says the current mercury guidelines also ignore the wider context of health and food security issues in these communities. 

The paper offers advice to doctors, nurses, and other health care providers in Canada's north, to help manage mercury exposure in patients who have a diet high in fish and marine mammals. 

"They definitely need to educate themselves on what their patients are consuming, on what they're eating, as well as which food sources will most likely have the highest levels of mercury in them," Pirkle said. "There's going to be a desperate need for locally relevant and accurate resources, so that they can appropriately counsel their patients."

Muskrat Falls backdrop

Both studies come against the backdrop of the multi-billion dollar Muskrat Falls hydro dam, and its possible environmental consequences. 

Construction on the project is well underway, and once the reservoir is flooded, methyl mercury levels could spike in Lake Melville — an important source of fish, seabirds, and seal for Labrador's Innu and Inuit communities. 

Dwight Ball Yvonne Jones Happy Valley-Goosey Bay legion protest

Indigenous leaders in Labrador fear higher mercury levels because of the Muskrat Falls development, and have protested an offer of compensation. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

People have asked Nalcor, the company building the dam, to fully clear the reservoir before flooding, to mitigate the impact on local water.

But the province says that won't happen. Instead, it will increase monitoring of methyl mercury levels, and if people are told not to eat traditional foods in the area, they will be compensated.

Pirkle says that's something health care providers in Labrador need to be aware of. 

"You want to balance the risk and the benefits," she said. "We don't want to tell people to stop eating country foods because the benefits are so great, but there may need to be a strategy where certain foods — if they have high levels of mercury — are substituted out for ones that are lower."