How climate change threatens food security in northern Ontario

By Tim Alamenciak - Published on Dec 08, 2015
The community in Fort Albany First Nation has been adapting in part by experimenting with growing vegetables like carrots.

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The geese didn’t stop in Fort Albany this year. Ever since Edmund Metatawabin was young, the hunters in his community of Fort Albany followed a seasonal pattern: geese in the spring, moose in the fall and caribou in the winter.

But that started to change last year. In spring 2014 the geese were rushed, flying high overhead instead of landing to feed. Hunters sounded their goose calls, but few were caught. Then in the fall, there were more wolves than normal, threatening the local moose population.

“Natural food is very important. We went [moose hunting] last fall and I would say 90 per cent of the people that went were not successful. We feel that, right now, there's not enough. There's a small amount that you can share with others, like feasts. You usually donate what you have,” says Metatawabin, an elder in the fly-in Cree and Ojibway First Nations community near James Bay.

People living in the remote regions of Ontario rely on wild food for its high nutritional value and relative availability, but the changing climate is threatening to upend that way of life. Global warming is shifting links in the food chain, disrupting traditional patterns of migratory animals and forcing others into southern environments, such as beluga whales into James Bay, threatening food sources that have been relied upon for generations. But along with the longer growing season comes opportunity for agriculture, and researchers who are working to find plant varieties that can grow well in the north.

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Metatawabin described how a disrupted hunting season can affect the whole food system.

“Everybody has to supplement their food source with the natural food,” says Metatawabin. “If the geese are not there, then that creates a problem for the summer, seeing as we're usually hunting geese in the spring that will tide us over to the fall. In the fall we're now looking for moose, so that if we get moose that will tide us for the next three or four months. In the winter we are now looking for caribou. There is a rhythm that we follow and if the expected food source within a given season is not there, that creates problems for the families.”

“There is a rhythm that we follow and if the expected food source within a given season is not there, that creates problems for the families.” — Edmund Metatawabin

In addition to its impact on wild animals, the changing temperature has also introduced new risks for the communities’ infrastructure and people engaging in routine practices, such as checking the traplines.

“The other sorts of issues are for example around Fort Hope. As they go on the snow machines to their traplines, there have been accidents where people have gone through the ice,” says David Pearson, a professor of earth sciences at Laurentian University. “There was a fatality in that community in April where somebody heading to the trapline in their snowmobile at a time of year that traditionally would have been safe is now not safe.”

But as nations meet in Paris to discuss what the world can do to slow the warming of the planet, communities everywhere are already adapting to this changing reality.

“What I know about our community here, about our people here, we have been adapting to changes very well,” says Fort Albany Chief Andrew Solomon. He says that he’s watched the community adapt to the changing climate each year.

For example, the community has started to shift its food supply patterns by returning to gardening and bringing in fresh food from the Ontario Food Terminal. Fort Albany, like many others in the North, imports much of its food from the South. This comes with a very high price tag as transportation costs inflate the food price. The farmers market is able to reduce transport costs and bring in fresh produce rather than packaged convenience food. Since 2008, the market has brought in fresh vegetables and fruits every two weeks. They are also able to pre-sell vegetables in food boxes. It’s been successful and has grown exponentially.

“From filling a plane that carries 1,200 lbs we're now overfilling a plane that's 3,000 or 4,000 pounds,” says Gigi Veeraraghavan, a community worker at Peetabeck Health Services involved with the farmers market.

Raspberries The animated image shows the optimal growing area for wild raspberries with the title "Where wild raspberries can grow." The first frame shows the optimal growing area in 2011. The optimal growing region is a band of green across the northern shore of Lake Superior. There are worse but still sufficient growing conditions for wild raspberries grow throughout in the rest of the province. The image transitions to show the optimal growing region in 2040. The only green in the province is along the western shore of James Bay, west to Manitoba, and small patch along the northern shore of Lake Superior. The images are taken from the Government of Canada's Plant Hardiness maps found at http://www.planthardiness.gc.caPearson discussed how the changing climate might also present opportunities for the growth of food in the north at the 2015 Bring Food Home conference, held in Sudbury, Ont. He illustrated the change using maps from the Canadian government’s plant hardiness website, which projects the growing areas for plants based on predicted levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The hardiness zones for wild raspberries and strawberries are increasing in northern Ontario, which opens up the opportunity to grow other crops, too.

The animated image shows the optimal growing area for wild strawberries with the title "Where wild strawberries can grow." The first frame shows the optimal growing area in 2011. The optimal growing region is a band of green across the northern shore of Lake Superior. There are worse but still sufficient growing conditions for wild strawberries in the rest of the province. The image transitions to show the optimal growing region in 2040. The northwestern patch of the province, from Hudson's Bay to Lake Superior, is green. The images are taken from the Government of Canada's Plant Hardiness maps found at http://www.planthardiness.gc.caResearchers from the University of Toronto have also been testing vegetable crops in Fort Albany by evaluating what types of plants can grow best there through agro-forestry, a practice that uses trees to provide shelter from wind for other crops.

Much of the soil is muskeg, says Damian MacSeáin, a Fort Albany resident who has been helping with the University of Toronto project. This means that traditional plants such as beans and potatoes won’t grow without preparing the soil through compost or fertilizer. There are, however, some patches of land that are suitable for growing food.

“This summer we grew four crops — we grew kale, carrots, potatoes and beans and there was a small perennial garden where we're getting the likes of various berries and asparagus,” says MacSeáin.

The agro-forestry project, called Share the Harvest, is being run out of the University of Toronto Scarborough by Dr. Leonard Tsuji. Meaghan Wilton, a PhD student at the University of Waterloo, has been involved in the project since 2012.

“Northern communities are more highly impacted by climate change and they’re seeing effects,” she says. Wilton has been trying to develop gardening practices that are self-sufficient and don’t rely on shipping in fertilizer or other supplies. She ran a composting project last year and plans to improve on that next summer.

“We’re trying to be as local as possible for cost reasons and also to adapt to changes. If they can't get everything on the ice road any more, I would like people to be sufficient up there if they didn't have the option, or if food costs became way too expensive,” she says.

Note: This story has been corrected from a previous version that said "acidic muskeg" made growing plants difficult. Often muskegs are acidic, but the limestone bedrock in the James Bay area creates an alkaline soil, which still causes growing issues.

Main image courtesy Leah MacSeáin

Gif images: Michael Lehan

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