A remote Ontario First Nation is taking control of its food

How Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation plans to improve food security and reduce grocery bills
By Jon Thompson - Published on July 28, 2017
​ By using planes leaving Sioux Lookout’s airport more efficiently, one First Nation hopes its residents will have access to cheaper, healthier food. (Harvey Sainnawap/Wasaya Airways/Facebook)

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Transportation costs make many goods prohibitively expensive by the time they land in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation, a fly-in community of 1,000 people located 400 kilometres northeast of Sioux Lookout. Ontario’s remote First Nations residents pay 70 per cent more for perishable food than those living in communities with highway access.

“Most people who are on social assistance — if they’re lucky — their funds may stretch up to two weeks maybe, at best. So kids are going hungry half the month,” says KI Chief James Cutfeet.

That is about to change, as KI takes control of its food delivery transportation network. The community has partnered with Sioux Lookout and nearby Lac Seul First Nation to acquire a 20,000-square-foot hangar at Sioux Lookout’s airport, which will be a regional distribution centre. It will store and dispatch mostly food, but also bulk medical and education supplies, and disaster management goods

The partnership will fill unused cargo space on planes destined for KI with these products, instead of having to rely exclusively on chartered flights.

The First Nation also intends to impose food profit caps on the community-owned store and two private grocery outlets to ensure residents benefit directly from increased supply. The distribution centre’s business plan estimates KI families will see their grocery bills drop as much as 40 per cent.

Changing the transportation path from a zigzag route across northern Ontario to a straight line from Winnipeg could also improve the quality of fresh food.

“Food is expiring in the transportation network because of the lack of knowledge of northwestern Ontario,” says Vicki Blanchard, the economic development manager for Sioux Lookout. Blanchard once took a five-day journey, starting in Winnipeg, with a shipment of food destined for KI. It started with a 1,500-kilometre drive to Timmins, followed by a nearly 800-kilometre flight to Peawanuck, near Hudson’s Bay, before it was flown another 200 kilometres to KI, and finally placed on a grocery store shelf.

“The best before date ended somewhere east of Thunder Bay, where you could have had it in Sioux Lookout in less than four-and-a-half hours – meaning the best before date would still have four or five days.”

The increased reliance on store-bought foods in First Nations over the past 50 years has contributed to widespread health problems; obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates across the region exceed the provincial average. The Northwestern Health Unit has highlighted remote communities as being vulnerable to low-quality produce and meat scarcity.

Cutfeet learned first-hand how access to food impacts living standards when was hired out of university to teach in Wunnumin Lake First Nation in the 1970s. His $60 grocery bill in Thunder Bay ballooned to $140 in his new home. He started a tab at the store, vowed to only purchase the food he needed, and never checked prices again. He points out not everyone is so fortunate.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have much in our family either. I’d sometimes go to my grandparents and see what they had — bannock or crackers,” he says.

“That’s the way these children subsist and eventually, it affects their health. A person who’s still eating off the land is out, active, on the land. They’re physically fit. Those of us who subsist on commercial goods, we’re fatter.”

The regional distribution centre will also connect with northwestern Ontario’s livestock and produce farmers. Alongside proposed greenhouse developments in the community, and school nutrition programs, expected to launch in 2018, Cutfeet says KI is beginning the “long process to build a healthy community.”

A healthier community could also mean a healthier economy. Cutfeet says the distribution centre could help develop local export businesses.

“I think once the centre becomes a reality, the people in the community will say, ‘hey, I can send my stuff out cheaper now,” Cutfeet says. “What about sending out commercial fish? What about people’s handicrafts? These are possibilities that can be explored.”

Charles Levkoe is an assistant professor at Lakehead University and a Canada Research Chair in sustainable food systems. While he says there’s no silver bullet for food security in the far north, controlling transportation is a critical piece of self-determination.

“If we really want to stay true to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the kinds of commitments our governments have made, and our responsibility as settlers in this country, we need to trust communities and not be in a situation where we’re dictating and controlling the context of what they can do and the decisions they can make,” he says.

“Food is a symptom of the problem. A lot of these communities — for the last 100 years — have been told what they can eat, what they can’t eat, and what their opportunities are. The most important thing is that these communities have control over their food supply.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

CORRECTION: This piece originally stated that when Vicki Blanchard followed food destined for KI First Nation, the first leg of the trip was a 1,500-kilometre flight from Winnipeg to Timmins. In fact, that was a 1,500-kilometre transport truck drive. TVO regrets the error.

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