As It Happens

Northern hunter living hard reality described in new report on climate change

A new report from Human Rights Watch says that climate change is making it much more difficult for Indigenous people to survive in Canada's north, and it is infringing on their rights.

Sam Hunter says it takes him more time to hunt for food needed to survive because of climate crisis

Sam Hunter is a member of the Weenusk First Nation and a resident of Peawanuck, Ont. He says that it's getting harder to hunt in Peawanuck because of climate change. This image is from the short film ‘Along the Winisk River.’ (Daron Donahue for Human Rights Watch)

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Sam Hunter says this fall in Peawanuk, Ont. has been mild, where normally it would be freezing and there would be snow on the ground, and as a result, he has had to change how he hunts. 

"I used to go hunting in a weekend, years prior, and now this year I had to be out along the coast for almost four weeks. It's a big difference," he told As It Happens host Carol Off.  Hunter said he was hunting for geese, and also fishing.

Peawanuk is a Cree community on the Winisk River in northern Ontario, just south of Hudson's Bay, and west of James Bay. 

A report released this week from Human Rights Watch says that Canada's changing climate is making it harder for Indigenous people to support themselves on the land. Unpredictable weather and changing conditions are disrupting wildlife habitats, causing available food resources to decline and making it more dangerous for Indigenous people to harvest food.  

The report also says the federal government's failure to help Indigenous people adapt is leading to violations of their rights.

Human Rights Watch spoke to 120 people, including Hunter, in First Nations communities in northern Ontario, northwestern British Columbia, and northern Yukon between June 2018 and December 2019.

"The experiences of First Nations described in this report are illustrative of broader climate change impacts across Canada, however, each First Nation is unique, and none of their experiences can be generalized, making it imperative to tailor measures to address climate impacts and community needs in each of their traditional territories," the group wrote.

We can see ... our peatlands thawing and the trees sinking into the ground, and the caribou that used to migrate in the hundreds of thousands, they're no longer here.- Sam Hunter

The report also noted that based on government statistics, half of First Nations people who live on reserves and nearly a third of Indigenous people who live off-reserve are food-insecure, which means they have difficulty accessing or are unable to access food to meet their dietary needs and preferences.

For Hunter, that means it's become harder to get food from the land.

"We used to have a fish run for about four weeks, maybe five weeks. But now, last couple years has been like one week of the fish run," he said. 

Traditionally, Hunter and his community would have specific seasons for hunting geese, fish or caribou, but he says that's been affected by changes in the climate.

"With these changes, if you missed one of those seasons — because we tried to harvest enough to last 12 months of the year — if you missed that, if we missed this year's fish, you won't have any fish for a year," he explained.

Hunter says that might mean people have to turn to buying groceries, which are expensive. He said a loaf of bread might cost around $6, eggs about the same, while a can of pop might be almost $5. 

"So what happens with the people that cannot afford food that they turn to Kraft dinner, canned food, cereal and they become sick with diabetes. They become overweight. That's the only thing they can afford," he said.

He said that if his family were forced to rely solely on the grocery store in his community they would not be able to make ends meet. 

In the report, Human Rights Watch notes that an average family of four in Peawanuck must spend around 30 percent more to buy a standard selection of healthy food each month, compared with a family in Toronto.

Sam Hunter paddles a canoe. (Isabel Souliere/Missinaibe Cree )

Hunter said that he has been collaborating with Human Rights Watch for a few years, and feels that it is important for people living in the south of the country to understand what is going on.

"What used to take 4000 years, it's happening in decades now, it's happening really fast. We can see ... our peatlands thawing and the trees sinking into the ground, and the caribou that used to migrate in the hundreds of thousands, they're no longer here," he said. 

"I think a lot of people think that Canada is a great place to live in. But some housing in the Native reserves is really bad. And the food they eat is terrible," he said. 

Written by Andrea Bellemare. Produced by Kevin Robertson.


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