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Tania Cameron organized the transport of 7,500 pounds of potatoes last week to sell at low cost or donate to families in the Kenora, Ont. area.courtesy of Tania Cameron/courtesy of Tania Cameron

Tania Cameron was not expecting to add local potato dealer to her list of professional experiences.

But scrolling social media recently, Ms. Cameron, who lives in Kenora, Ont., and whose home community is Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation in Ontario, noticed an ad for the sale of potatoes from a farm two hours outside of Winnipeg that was looking to cut stock at a good price after seeing its restaurant orders dry up.

In the past two weeks, Ms. Cameron, a regional co-ordinator for Indigenous Sport & Wellness Ontario, has co-ordinated the sale – or donation – of nearly 4,500 kilograms of potatoes to lower-income families in the Kenora area, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and one First Nation.

Food insecurity in First Nations is about four-times higher than the national average across Canada, with many communities relying on the transport of goods from urban centres. The issue has been exacerbated by COVID-19. In response, communities are taking matters into their hands, including by hunting and gathering traditional foods to share and by distributing food hampers.

In Siksika Nation in Southern Alberta, community staff recently organized a drive-through service for members to pick up bison meat packages, while Kehewin Cree Nation, located northeast of Edmonton, announced an initiative for on-reserve members to plant their own gardens.

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Food insecurity – the fear or reality of not having enough to eat – is particularly acute for fly-in First Nations, Ms. Cameron said.

Recently, someone from Pikangikum First Nation, a fly-in community several hundred kilometres north of Kenora, asked if she could help facilitate a separate shipment of potatoes. But a call to an airline revealed that shipping 120 22-kilogram bags of potatoes by air would cost more than $5,000.

She’s considering whether she can crowdfund the cost.

In Wapekeka First Nation, a fly-in community of about 450 members in Northern Ontario, moose meat and caribou have been distributed to community members amid concerns over food supply, said Joshua Frogg, a band administrator and media liaison in an interview.

Wapekeka has to rely on airlines to deliver goods and if the food chain is depleted or compromised in any way it could have a devastating impact, Mr. Frogg added.

“What we’ve done is we’ve planned ahead to stockpile some food, traditional food that we have access to,” Mr. Frogg said.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told The Globe and Mail that food insecurity is especially concerning for 96 fly-in First Nations and that COVID-19 has compounded the pre-existing issue.

“In some of the northern First Nations, they rely on the northern store or the local co-op and in a lot of cases, there are no roads into these communities, so once the ice road is out that is it," he said.

"They’re flying in and there’s high costs so there’s always an issue with that.”

In a survey of 92 First Nations, almost half of all households reported food insecurity, according to a ten-year study published in 2019, based on a collaboration between the Assembly of First Nations, the University of Ottawa and University of Montreal. The figure rose to almost 60 per cent of households in remote communities without year-round road access.

Malek Batal, a professor of nutrition at University of Montreal and one of the study’s principal investigators, also said that communities reported barriers in accessing traditional foods, including the costs of the equipment needed.

In early April, seventy Indigenous and non-Indigenous physicians and health scientists, including Prof. Batal, sent a letter to the Trudeau government expressing concern over food insecurity in Indigenous communities and called for more nutritional support.

Indigenous Services Canada is monitoring the food supply across First Nations and is in regular discussions with territorial governments, Valerie Gideon, a senior assistant deputy minister with the department, said in a recent briefing.

“We are working closely with other departments, like Transport Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, to ensure there is an integrity of the food-supply chain,” Ms. Gideon said.

Food-related initiatives are eligible for the Indigenous Community Support Fund, a recent $305-million allocation meant to bolster communities’ planning for COVID-19, she added.

Funding has also been boosted by $25-million for Nutrition North Canada, a subsidy program designed to improve isolated northern communities’ access to food.

In James Smith Cree Nation, about a two-hour drive northeast of Saskatoon, Richard Brittain Jr. has been out on the land about nine hours a day lately, hunting and trapping with his family to help provide for community members during the pandemic.

“Our grandfathers and our grandmothers warned us a while ago to start preparing for something that was going to come and they told us to go out and gather from the land,” said Mr. Brittain, who also goes by his traditional name Worldwind.

Mr. Brittain, along with his nephew, Luke Burns, gathered about 600 pounds of wild meat for the community’s youth centre in response, where young people cut it up into portions to be shared, including with off-reserve members in urban centres.

On an average day, Mr. Brittain wakes up early and jumps into his hunting truck with his nephews. When they arrive at the lands where they plan to hunt, they put down some tobacco and say a prayer to Mother Earth, asking for blessings for their hunt.

Mr. Brittain said he learned how to be on the land from his moshum, or grandfather, who hunted and trapped for more than five decades of his life. He’s since been able to help teach his nephews.

“It gives me great honour and it builds my spirit with so much joy and happiness to see my people not suffering or not going without."

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