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Traditional food and participatory research: a Canadian experience

Traditional/country food has a central role in the life and health of indigenous peoples in the north. Unfortunately, there is a general declining trend of the use of traditional food in northern Canada. By Laurie H.M. Chan and Harriet V. Kuhnlein

Indigenous peoples have clear perceptions of factors contributing to environmental change, lifestyle change and ultimately to dietary change. These factors have been described to include: a reduced density of species and available harvesting areas; restricted harvesting in accessible areas; time and energy limitations for traditional harvesting; interruption
of knowledge transfer to youth due to employment of adults and schools for children; availability and accessibility of new food products; acceptability of new food products as a result of media, social contact and education; and concerns for wholesomeness and the presence of contaminants in traditional food.
To study the importance of traditional diets, researchers at of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) at McGill University in Canada conducted three comprehensive dietary surveys in the last ten years in 44 communities in the Canadian Arctic and sub-Arctic regions with the support, participation and guidance of Aboriginal partners including the Inuit Tapiriit Kana-tami of Canada, Dene Nation,Métis Nation of the Northwest Territories, and Council of Yukon First Nations. Participants were randomly selected for interviews, and a total of 3689 interviews were made. Approximately 600 food items prepared for consumption were sampled for analysis of nutrients and contaminants. Traditional
food was reported as being consumed frequently and included a large variety of species and body parts. Traditional food used by Dene/Metis, Yukon First Nations and Inuit communities included 62, 53, and 129 animal species and 40, 48 and 42 plant species respectively in the three areas. The proportion of energy from traTraditional food and participatory research: a Canadian experienceditional food varied among communities and seasons, ranging from about 10 to 40 percent of all calories in the average day from traditional food.
Traditional/country food also provides economic benefits to families. Many respondents in communities stated that they would not be able to afford all their food needs, if required to buy it from the store. The majority of respondents also stated that harvesting and using traditional food by the family provided many benefits, such as improved physical
fitness and good health, and as a way for adults to model responsibility for their children.

Throughout Canada, indigenous peoples are assuming a greater role in determining the kind of research that takes place with them. Research projects on health and nutrition issues, in particular, require support from community leadership councils and individual participation. A good partnership between research scientists and the communities ensures the relevance of research objectives, the appropriateness of the methodology and the effectiveness of the communications of the results and the overall success of the project. For example, the dietary surveys conducted by CINE were community driven and involved community agenda setting, and community participation. Results were freely shared with northern communities. Cultural traditions with respect to the ownership and use of traditional knowledge were respected. The format and time frame of the release of any information resulting from the research activities were agreed upon by all parties (the university, its researchers, partners and participating communities) in advance. Students and researchers joining the project were trained to respect traditional knowledge and community participation. Research results were communicated to the communities in plain, easily understood language, and in an appropriate dialect. Based from the CINE experience, the World Health Organization recently published a document titled Indigenous Peoples and Participatory Health Research – Planning and Management and Preparing Research Agreements. The document may serve as a template of basic principles to be observed in planning, organizing, and carrying out research on Indigenous health issues.

LAURIE H.M. CHAN is an Associate Professor and holds a NSERC Northern Research Chair in Environmental Contaminants, Food Security and Indigenous Peoples of the North at McGill University. HARRIET V. KUHNLEIN is a Professor in Human Nutrition at McGill University. She is the Founding Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment and was recently awarded the Jack Hildes medal in 12th International Congress on Circumpolar Health.The Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) opened in 1993 in response to a need expressed by Aboriginal Peoples in Canada for participatory research and education to address their concerns about the integrity of their traditional food systems. The mandate of CINE is to undertake, in concert with Indigenous Peoples, community-based research and education related to traditional food systems. The empirical knowledge of the environment inherent in indigenous societies is incorporated into all its efforts. Governance of the CINE is provided jointly by the Assembly of First Nations, Council of Yukon First Nations, Dene Nation, Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Metis Nation (NWT), and the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. The Centre is interdisciplinary and based at McGill University’s Macdonald Campus in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. See for more information.