Traditional foods boost Indigenous health

Culturally appropriate foods making headway in hospitals
Photo: Phuong Tran

Since Kenny Thomas was a young boy, he’s hunted in his traditional territory, the lands and waters around Fort Severn in northwestern Ontario. Now 35, he’s using the skills he learned from his family and elders to provide for those who can’t.

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The quality of hospital food may be a familiar complaint to some, but not for many First Nation patients at the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre. The 60-bed hospital and 20-bed extended care facility is one of northern Ontario’s main health service providers and where Kenny Thomas donates his wild game.

“We’ve been taught to respect our elders and our traditional rights to have that diet available for young and old,” says Thomas. “It is very important for us.”

In the area of Fort Severn live wild geese, including snow geese, Canada geese and lesser geese. For many local First Nations, the birds are a staple of their diet. For years, that food was unavailable to those who found themselves hospitalized.

“We hunt them and clean them and prepare them for the hospital and for anybody else wanting geese,” says Thomas. “We clean them however they want them done such as smoked, gutted, or with feathers or plucked.”

The wild game is shipped to Sioux Lookout from surrounding communities such as Fort Severn by Wasaya Airlines, through an agreement with the hospital and other organizations to bring traditional food to the sick. The airline delivers the wild game for free.

But getting wild meat on the menu at the health centre wasn’t easy, because serving “uninspected meat” is usually illegal.

But getting wild meat on the menu at the health centre wasn’t easy, because serving “uninspected meat” is usually illegal.

Meno Ya Win Health Centre was developed by three levels of government and First Nations in the region. The legislation that governs it states that the hospital may have uninspected meat on the premises.

Kathy Loon is the manager of traditional food services at Meno Ya Win Health Centre. She says lawyers working for local First Nations pushed for wild foods to be included in the centre’s menu.

“Right from the onset, in the development of the hospital, that was the guts in this act,” says Loon.

The only catch is that the hospital can’t charge for the wild foods.

“We have separate freezers, a separate kitchen, separate utensils, separate everything in order to serve this traditional food,” explains Loon.

Not only is there a strict process when it comes to storing and handling the meat, but rigid record keeping is maintained by hunters, centre staff and airline personnel.

Vincent Simon is the executive director at Ka-Na-Chi-Hih, an Indigenous solvent abuse treatment centre in Thunder Bay. He says he understands the obstacles to serving traditional food.

The organization was serving traditional food to clients when someone reported it to the health unit. Now it is allowed to serve traditional foods but only if it follows strict rules, such as informing clients that the meat has not been inspected and keeping track of clients who eat the meat. This monitoring process is foreign for many who grew up eating wild food.

“It’s part of their identity, it’s like a way of life for some of them,” says Simon about his clients. “It’s like traditions. Do they like to go and smudge, do they like to drum, do they like to go into the circle?” he asks, making a point about the significance of traditional foods.

While it may seem like wild foods are simply comfort foods, science is increasingly demonstrating how beneficial they actually are. A recent study showed that First Nation communities were much healthier when they consumed highly nutritious wild edibles instead of processed, store-bought foods. The First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study in Ontario also suggests that wild foods are a valuable weapon in the fight against obesity and diabetes, which have become prevalent in Indigenous communities.

However, getting wild meats to Indigenous peoples in urban centres isn’t always easy.

Wequedong Lodge offers accommodations and service referrals to Indigenous clients receiving medical care in Thunder Bay. Staff would like to offer traditional meals to their clients, but the lodge is not covered under the same legislation as Meno Ya Win Health Centre.

There’s also the issue of separate facilities. One of the reasons Meno Ya Win can offer traditional meals to clients is because it has separate kitchen and food storage facilities specifically for wild foods.

Despite these challenges, facilities across Canada have begun to offer traditional foods to Indigenous people. For instance, Whitehorse General Hospital and Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital, along with long-term care facilities in Inuvik, Fort Smith and Behchoko in the Northwest Territories, serve traditional food to Indigenous patients.

Sabrina Broadhead, Aboriginal director of health services with the Northwest Territories government, says serving traditional foods to clients is crucial to the healing process.

“In the Northwest Territories, 50 per cent of the population is Aboriginal, and having to go to a care facility and to have traditional foods is really important,” says Broadhead. “It is important to bring community practices into facilities.”

“It is important to bring community practices into facilities.”

The First Nations Health Authority in B.C. has also encouraged clients to eat more traditional foods. The 2009 First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study in B.C. showed that when Indigenous participants ate traditional foods, their levels of protein, vitamin D, iron and zinc — important nutrients for healing — were higher.

“Traditional foods make an important contribution to the overall diet of many First Nations people,” says Suzanne Johnson from the Penticton Indian Band. Johnson is a registered dietitian at the First Nations Health Authority. “For individuals who are in hospitals, having access to foods that are culturally appropriate and familiar supports personal well-being and healing.”

This past year, the focus of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s food symposium in Thunder Bay was traditional foods without borders. The goal is to see traditional foods readily available, not just in hospitals, medical facilities and treatment centres, but also restaurants. The food strategy coordinator for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Fred Jacobs, says getting there will require considerable cutting of red tape and changes to local laws, a process that could take years.

In the meantime, Kenny Thomas says he’ll continue to hunt and help bring traditional foods to community members, just as his ancestors did.

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