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Snow blows across the Dempster Highway, Wright Pass in Yukon.WERONIKA MURRAY

Federal climate-change policies have largely ignored the effects of global warming on First Nations' access to traditional food, leaving Indigenous people increasingly vulnerable to food shortages and related health problems, according to an 18-month study by an international human rights agency.

The Human Rights Watch report details the myriad challenges First Nations people are confronting with greater frequency when trying to acquire healthy food – from thin ice cover on traditional hunting routes to biodiversity loss, unpredictable winter roads, shorter hunting seasons and lower yields of fish in waters that not long ago boasted bountiful stocks.

First Nations people who live off the land are bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change on food security, the report says. It notes that Canada is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, with the country’s North warming even more quickly, at almost three times the global rate.

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Georgina Wabano and her mother cook traditional food for schoolchildren, in Peawanuck, Ont., on Dec. 18, 2019.Daron Donahue/Handout

The federal government has made a number of promises regarding climate change and food scarcity. In a Speech from the Throne last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to working with First Nations to address food insecurity. He recently signed on to an international pledge to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. And he has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

But Canada is on track to substantially miss its emissions targets. And, according to the report, federal climate-change policies are not adequately addressing diminished access to nutritious, traditional food. Human Rights Watch is urging the government to reconsider the design of the federal carbon tax, which it says will likely drive up food prices in remote communities. While the carbon policy includes a tax-based rebate, the report says the money is not reaching First Nations people on reserve who, owing to legislated exemptions, may not file federal tax returns. The advocacy group is also calling on the government to ensure that COVID-19 stimulus packages support a “just transition towards renewable energy, including in First Nations."

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Weenusk First Nations members packing their sleds ahead of a hunt.Daron Donahue/Handout

The 120-page report, My Fear Is Losing Everything: The Climate Crisis and First Nations' Right to Food in Canada, is being released as Indigenous people across the country head out onto the land and waters for the fall harvest. The game they will hunt and the fish they will catch will help feed their families through the winter; this is especially true in remote communities, where healthy food shipped from the south is either non-existent or sold at a premium.

“The impacts of [climate change] might not be as apparent to people who live in big cities in the south … but things will get worse,” said Katharina Rall, a senior Human Rights Watch environment researcher and co-author of the report, in an interview from Paris. “What we’re seeing here, with First Nations, is really a harbinger of what’s to come – very soon.”

The report lays bare the reality that climate change is compounding the inequalities long experienced by Indigenous people in Canada, including health outcomes and poverty rates. And it seeks to remind governments of all levels that reconciliation is impossible without immediate and sustained action to curb climate change.

More than 80 per cent of all First Nations adults are overweight or obese and one-fifth have diabetes, according to a major nutrition and food security study released last year. Almost half of all First Nations families have trouble putting enough food on the table. The Human Rights Watch report says “climate-exacerbated food poverty” increasingly means that community members, including children and elders, must skip meals or consume processed foods.

“When you add climate change into the mix, it’s just adding insult to injury,” said Kai Chan, an interdisciplinary scientist at the University of British Columbia. “It’s a real travesty and an environmental injustice.”

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Weenusk First Nation member Mike Wabano sets up camp for caribou hunting on a frozen river.daron donahue/Handout

Dr. Chan, co-author of a 2019 United Nations report that warned of reduced food security owing to global biodiversity loss, said the federal government must immediately redouble its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “No matter what we do by 2030, it’s going to get a lot worse for those northern communities, just by virtue of the inertia already in the system,” he said.

The Human Rights Watch report is based on research conducted between June, 2018, and December of last year. Ms. Rall and her colleagues interviewed more than 120 people, including chiefs, council members and residents in First Nations communities in Yukon, northwestern British Columbia and Northern Ontario. The field research took place in Old Crow, Yukon; the Skeena River watershed of B.C.; and Peawanuck and Attawapiskat First Nation, Ont.

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Old Crow, Yukon, one of the places where field research for the Human Rights Watch report took place.WERONIKA MURRAY/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Rall and co-author Rachel LaFortune recommend in their report that Ottawa “urgently strengthen its climate change policies to reduce emissions” and provide First Nations with the financial and technical support to design and manage climate-mitigation projects. They recommend that Environment and Climate Change Canada “revise the federal carbon tax system to ensure that First Nations benefit from equitable revenue-sharing, and those on reserve can easily access the equivalent of a tax rebate.”

A spokeswoman for Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in an e-mail that the government will bring forward an updated climate plan to set Canada on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050. Moira Kelly also noted that the government has committed more than $1.3-billion to biodiversity protection, has signed conservation agreements for caribou in several provinces and territories, and has funded climate-change monitoring and mitigation efforts through its Indigenous Guardians pilot program.

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Porcupine caribou in Blow River Valley, Yukon.Weronika Murray/The Globe and Mail

In an e-mail, a spokeswoman for Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said the government is working to improve the accessibility and affordability of nutritious food in northern communities through the Nutrition North Canada program. Allison St-Jean also pointed to a federal grant program that provides $8-million annually to support traditional Indigenous harvesting, food preservation and food-sharing activities in isolated communities.

At the provincial and territorial level, the report noted disparities between the responses of the governments of Yukon, B.C. and Ontario. Yukon, for instance, has committed to regularly gathering data on food insecurity in the territory. B.C. has collaborated with First Nations to develop a climate-adaptation strategy, which is slated for release this year. Ontario, meanwhile, cancelled numerous climate-mitigation programs that benefited First Nations, the report said.

Among those interviewed for the report was Sam Hunter, a natural resources monitor in Peawanuck, a Weenusk First Nation community in the Hudson Bay lowlands of Ontario. As part of the Indigenous Guardians program, Weenusk received $60,000 last year to develop climate-adaptation strategies and track changes in access to traditional food. Mr. Hunter monitors permafrost and collects soil and fish samples.

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Sam Hunter, a natural resources monitor, member of Weenusk First Nation and resident of Peawanuck, Ont., seen here on Dec. 13, 2019.Daron Donahue/Handout

He told The Globe and Mail that the foods his family has long harvested, including geese and whitefish, are harder to come by than just two decades ago. He recalled a conversation he had a couple of years ago with a woman who worked at a gas station in the middle of nowhere on the route from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, Ont. The woman asked what he did for a living. “I said that I study climate change, and then she said she doesn’t believe in it,” Mr. Hunter recounted. “I told her, ‘Well, where I’m living, the permafrost is melting, and trees are sinking into the muskeg. It’s literally vanishing.’ And then she said, ‘Wow, that’s the first time I’ve heard anyone tell me what they’re actually seeing.’”

Mr. Hunter implored those living in cities to the south to reflect on how their day-to-day choices are making life harder for people like him. “Canadians need to start looking at their personal lives – use less,” he said. “Because what you’re doing is affecting people in the Far North.”

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