How one Future 40 nominee is bringing sustainable food economies to northern First Nations
'I want First Nation communities to be independent of food insecurity,' says Rodney Contois, 32
Diabetes and other health concerns continue to plague many remote Canadian communities, which is one of the reasons Rodney Contois is working to empower northern Manitoba First Nations through locally grown and harvested food systems.
"I'd say it's dire, because the health complications arising out of the lack of access to healthy food and affordable healthy food is creating health epidemics," said Contois, 32.
"You want your children and your family to live a healthy life going forward, but that's not taking place. Instead, there are multiple generations of people dealing with conditions and issues that are arising out of bad diets, out of highly processed, highly sugar-laden foods."
Contois is one of CBC Manitoba's Future 40 nominees for 2017. He's from Misipawistik Cree Nation (Grand Rapids), situated along the northern basin of Lake Winnipeg, and is bringing sustainable local food economies to First Nations in the north of the province.
Contois recalls spending many summer days as a child hunting in the area, or out on Lake Winnipeg in a boat with his grandparents and uncle fishing.
"Food security was always present, but I wasn't quite so aware of that it was an issue in many First Nation communities," he said.
Contois graduated from the University of Manitoba's Native Studies program in 2014. Through his post-secondary education, Contois learned more about the complex social, geographic, economic and agricultural factors that exacerbate issues of food security in northern First Nations.
I want First Nation communities to be independent of food insecurity. I want them to be able to sustain their food systems by themselves without having any dependency on outside sources, be able to feed themselves.- Rodney Contois
"It did start off like a bang. It just kind of evolved into this area I thought was very important for First Nations communities in Canada, and it was particularly more hard-hitting up north because they don't have as much infrastructure or as much access to healthy food in the first place," Contois said.
"It's all about building that capacity."
Contois started working with Food Matters Manitoba after graduation, before he moved on to a director position with Aki Foods, an Indigenous-led social enterprise devoted to building stable food economies in remote communities.
First Nations have struggled as diets have changed rapidly in recent generations, Contois says, and it's time for a change.
"We got to get back to our healthy foods ... comprised mainly of our local foods," Contois said. That means a foundational shift toward primarily consuming meat and other food harvested locally, and through creating new markets that allow First Nations to import and export certain foods as they choose.
"I want First Nation communities to be independent of food insecurity," Contonis said. "I want them to be able to sustain their food systems by themselves without having any dependency on outside sources, be able to feed themselves."
We want to celebrate the province's new generation of leaders, builders and change-makers under the age of 40.
Do you know someone under 40 who is shaping Manitoba's future? Nominations are only open from Oct. 10 to Oct. 23 at 11:59 p.m. CT.