Joseph Koostachin, 58, remembers when he and his wife Helen, 56, went out on the land to hunt and berry pick with their young children. In the summer, the forests and meadows were lush and the water in the rivers plentiful. The winters were cold, with ice and snow cover allowing them to travel by dog sled from November through April. They would hunt caribou, a large type of deer, in the winter, while snow geese predictably arrived in April, and fish were bountiful in summer. The varied, seasonal harvest helped Joseph feed his family healthy food year-round.
The Koostachins live in Peawanuck, a remote community on Hudson Bay in the Canadian province of Ontario. Joseph and Helen’s sons are now grown and have taken over the responsibility of securing food from the land for the family. Going out on the land means more than just finding food, however, it is also a reflection of their deep ties to the land of their ancestors and its importance to their cultural identity and traditions.
Yet as global temperatures have risen as a result of climate change, the Koostachins’ way of life, and livelihood, have become increasingly difficult to maintain, and the realization of their rights to food, health, and culture are at risk. There are fewer caribou and geese migrating to the area. And it is harder—at times impossible—to hunt them because the ice and permafrost they must travel over is no longer stable throughout the winter, while the waters they traverse in summer are unpredictably low. As the climate continues to warm, these changes to their lands and environment will intensify, and their traditional sources of sustenance could entirely disappear.
Already, as a result of these changes, the Koostachins have not been able to harvest the food they need to ensure an adequate diet, and, like many northern and remote First Nations people in Canada, they lack a cost-effective, healthy alternative. If not enough food can be harvested from the land—through hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants—their only option is to buy costly food imported from the [Canadian] “South.” An average family of four in Peawanuck must spend around 30 percent more to purchase a standard selection of healthy food each month compared to a family in Toronto.
With their modest income, the Koostachins said they cannot afford to buy healthy food such as vegetables at the store. While there are government subsidies meant to make food shipped from the South more affordable, healthy imported food, particularly produce, remains inaccessible to many and is becoming more expensive as a result of climate impacts on transport costs.
Across Canada, Indigenous families are already much more likely to be “food insecure”—defined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as not being able to access food to meet dietary needs and food preferences—largely as a result of historic marginalization and the impacts of colonialism. Some studies find nearly one in two households in First Nations are food insecure, compared with one out of nine white Canadian households. Food poverty now risks reaching increasingly dangerous levels as climate change impacts across the country intensify and accelerate, undermining First Nations’ access to food and worsening health outcomes, especially for adults and children with chronic health conditions such as diabetes.
Climate change is significantly impacting First Nations—and their livelihoods—across Canada, and there is evidence that the worst is yet to come. Canada is warming by about twice the global average, and northern Canada is warming even faster. A 2019 government report, commissioned by the federal climate ministry, projects increasingly warmer temperatures, shorter snow and ice cover seasons, and thawing permafrost across the country. In fact, key sub-Arctic ecosystems that support many traditional sources of food are already at risk of reaching climate tipping points, past which they will not be able to recover from the consequences of rapid warming. This change, according to scientists, will contribute to carbon emissions. For example, climate change-induced permafrost thaw and increased forest fires are pushing historic carbon sinks like Canada’s vast boreal forest to the brink, causing them to become net carbon contributors.
Indigenous peoples in Canada are among the lowest contributors to greenhouse emissions in the country, yet academic research shows they are among the most exposed to climate change impacts. As the climate warms, there are fewer animals migrating and traditional plants growing on First Nations’ traditional territories. Unpredictable weather hampers the ability of hunters, who rely on traditional knowledge, to safely navigate potentially treacherous terrain to access hunting grounds. And as transport options like winter roads—constructed from snow and ice—become less reliable in warming winters, communities increasingly rely on more expensive air transport to deliver food, driving up the cost of purchased foods.
The harmful impacts of warming that Indigenous populations in Canada are experiencing point to more devastating impacts in the future. Human Rights Watch research found that the Canadian government’s failure to put in place adequate measures to support First Nations in adapting to current and anticipated impacts of climate change is leading to violations of their rights. And federal and provincial authorities are not doing enough to advance global efforts to curb climate change.
This report, the outcome of research Human Rights Watch conducted in Northern Ontario, Northwestern British Columbia, and Northern Yukon between June 2018 and December 2019, examines the impacts of the climate crisis on First Nations. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 120 individuals, including residents, chiefs, and council members in First Nations communities; medical providers, educators, environment and health experts, academics, and staff of Indigenous-led and Indigenous representative organizations. The experiences of First Nations described in this report are illustrative of broader climate change impacts across Canada, however, each First Nation is unique, and none of their experiences can be generalized, making it imperative to tailor measures to address climate impacts and community needs in each of their traditional territories.
Climate Change as a Driver of Food Poverty
The communities Human Rights Watch visited are largely populated by First Nations people who have traditionally relied on caribou, moose, geese, salmon and other animals and fish—along with supplements of berries—to feed their families. For generations, traditional food systems have been central to the livelihoods and health of First Nations.
Climate change threatens to decimate these food systems, risking further serious consequences for livelihoods and health. In the three areas where Human Rights Watch conducted research, residents reported drastic reductions in the quantity of harvestable resources available, and increased difficulty and danger associated with harvesting. They attributed this decline in part to changes in wildlife habitat as a result of climate change, including changing ice and permafrost, wildfires, warming water temperatures, changes in precipitation and water levels, and unpredictable weather. Numerous scientific studies support these observations and warn of further devastating impacts as the climate crisis increasingly threatens the viability of and access to traditional food sources.
With less food to be harvested, households supplement their traditional diet with more purchased food. First Nations in remote locations have a compounded risk of food poverty because higher transportation costs drive food prices higher than elsewhere in the country. This cost differential has been increasing in part due to climate-related changes in the local environment. For example, shorter, warmer winters mean shorter periods in which winter roads can be used, and such roads enable more cost-effective delivery of supplies from the South. This change means more people like Joseph and Helen choosing between going hungry or buying cheaper foods they believe contribute to making them sick or sicker. It will get significantly worse if climate change continues unchecked.
Impacts on Health and Culture
Healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, in remote grocery stores are often cost-prohibitive. As a result, people told Human Rights Watch they tend to eat more affordable, but less nutritious foods, compounding existing health disparities in northern communities tied to historic marginalization and poor access to health care. In particular, academic studies show that increased dependence on processed, high-calorie, store-bought foods—often less expensive and with longer shelf-lives—has contributed to serious diet-related health issues among First Nations, such as the growing and disproportionate number of First Nations people affected by obesity and diabetes.
In several of the communities where Human Rights Watch conducted research, teachers and community members said that children come hungry to school. Older people and people with chronic diseases whose health conditions can make a healthy diet all-the-more critical said they find the loss of harvested food impedes their ability to eat healthily. Medical providers told Human Rights Watch that people with chronic diseases cannot afford to follow medically recommended diets due to their inability to obtain food from the land or to afford nutritious foods sold in stores. Some of the relatively older people interviewed for this report said they have cut down on the number of meals they eat per day.
The impacts of climate change negatively affect Indigenous cultures. Limited access to traditional food sources and decreased ability of First Nations to safely spend time on the land, threatens not only communities’ food supplies but also their ability to engage in related cultural practices and ultimately maintain their cultural identities. First Nations’ land-based knowledge systems, known as “Indigenous knowledge,” which communities use to pass information about harvesting techniques and other cultural knowledge down through the generations, are also being challenged by climate change impacts. The unpredictable weather and animal patterns linked to climate change impacts inhibit the growth and adaptation of Indigenous knowledge, and the transmission of cultural knowledge—which necessitates time spent on the land.
Across the country, First Nations are addressing the impacts of the climate crisis, including through projects such as community solar projects or local food sourcing projects like gardens and greenhouses. Some First Nations maintain strong traditional food sharing networks that have helped address climate-driven loss of food through sharing harvest with vulnerable members of the community, while others have built up community-science programs that monitor climate change impacts on their environment. Yet, all these efforts require resources and capacity which many communities cannot access given government funding complexities, especially as needs increase with rising temperatures.
Failure to Address Climate Change and its Impacts on Food Poverty
In its September 2020 Speech from the Throne, in which the federal government outlines its priorities for the upcoming parliamentary session, the government committed to “work with … First Nations … to address food insecurity in Canada.” Until now, federal climate change policies have largely ignored the impacts of climate change on First Nations’ right to food. Most existing policies were designed without meaningful participation of First Nations and fail to monitor—let alone address—human rights impacts in these communities. Food subsidies and health resources required to respond to the current and projected impacts are often not available, insufficient, or do not reach those who need it the most.
For example, the federal government’s “Nutrition North” program subsidizes a list of nutritious foods transported from registered southern retailers. This program is the major means of supplementing inadequate supplies of locally harvested food. However, since its inception in 2011, the program has not led to remote, northern communities securing access to affordable, healthy food: food prices in community-based stores remain high with healthy food options financially unattainable for many. Ordering subsidized food from retailers in the South often requires a credit card—which can be a barrier for some low-income families. It remains to be seen whether changes to the program made in 2019, including subsidy increases, will increase access to healthy foods in First Nations. Robust community-based monitoring of actual price development in First Nations should be undertaken to determine the efficacy of these changes and adjustments made where necessary.
At the subnational level of provincial and territorial governments the response varies. The Yukon territory, for example, released a climate change policy in 2019 that acknowledges the need to monitor and address food security and unique impacts on Indigenous peoples. Ontario, by contrast, starting in 2018, cancelled numerous climate adaptation and mitigation programs that benefited First Nations.
Meanwhile, Canada is not doing its part to advance global efforts to address the change in global temperature, which is contributing to loss of traditional food sources. In 2015, it made a weak pledge to only reduce emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. At time of writing Canada has not set an adequately ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution, a country’s domestic climate change action plan, to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C—according to the think tank Climate Action Tracker, if all government targets were in range with Canada’s level of ambition, warming would reach over 2°C and up to 3°C. While the federal government has repeatedly confirmed its commitment to exceed the 2030 goal and reach net-zero emissions by 2050 through legislated targets, including in the September 2020 Speech from the Throne, it is unclear how it will reach these goals. In any case, the government is not on track to meet either its 2030 emissions targets or net-zero by 2050, and acknowledges that more needs to be done. Despite its relatively small population of approximately 37.5 million people, Canada is still among the top 10 countries worldwide in GHG emissions, with per capita emissions approximately three to four times the global average, and growing.
Complicating efforts to cut emissions is Canada’s continued subsidizing of fossil fuel production. Canada increased its financial support for fossil fuels from 2018 to 2019 to nearly CAD$600 million, and has continued to provide billions in aid to fossil fuel producers as part of the country’s Covid-19 response in 2020.
The federal government’s plan to cut carbon emissions through a carbon pricing policy can be an essential aspect—though insufficient on its own—of the fight against climate change. The current design of the federal carbon tax, however, will likely drive up food prices, particularly in remote communities, thereby placing a disproportionate burden on a population that bears the least responsibility for the problem. While the policy includes a tax-based rebate intended to mitigate the impacts of these price increases on lower-income people, the federal government has acknowledged this method is ineffective for First Nations given legislated tax exemptions that mean many First Nations people on-reserve do not file federal tax returns.
Ultimately, Canada’s climate policies are insufficient and poorly designed, contributing to a double bind for First Nation peoples: while climate change is adversely impacting their traditional food sources, their ability to afford healthy store-bought food is being undercut by the government’s main mitigation policy: the carbon tax.
The Canadian government should urgently strengthen its climate change policies to reduce emissions in line with the best available science, including by setting ambitious new Nationally Determined Contributions which will align their emissions reduction targets with the Paris Agreement.
Covid-19 stimulus packages should support a just transition towards renewable energy, including in First Nations. Such measures are essential for Canada to contribute to global efforts to mitigate climate change under the Paris Agreement, which are necessary to reduce further negative impacts on Indigenous peoples’ rights to food and health.
First Nations should receive the financial and technical support needed to respond to current and projected climate impacts, including on food and health, and should lead the design and implementation of programs addressing these impacts.
In line with Canada’s human rights obligations, including under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it is essential that climate change adaptation and mitigation policies not further harm Indigenous peoples, including older people, women, children and people with chronic diseases within First Nations who are already among the most impacted by climate change.
The Canadian government should publicly announce that it accepts the right to food as a basic human right, and part of the human right to an adequate standard of living, and realize its obligation to ensure that First Nations can realize this right by addressing climate impacts on food poverty. The announcement should include a recognition that Indigenous knowledge of climatic conditions and their impacts on traditional food sources are relevant to the realization of the right to food.
This report documents the impacts of climate change on First Nations’ rights to food, health, culture, and a healthy environment in communities in both the Far North and provincial norths of Canada. It also examines government policies related to climate change mitigation and adaptation and how the government is addressing the human rights challenges exacerbated by climate change. The report is based on interviews with more than 120 people, including 45 Indigenous people living in First Nations on and off reserve, provincial/territorial and federal government officials, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations who have worked on climate change impacts in First Nations. Human Rights Watch also interviewed more than 30 experts who currently work, or have worked, on Indigenous food security and climate change issues, including service providers and academic researchers.
The interviews were conducted in person and by phone between June 2018 and March 2020, including five weeks of field research in June and October 2018, March and December 2019, and March 2020. We also conducted group interviews, each of between five and 15 participants, in Peawanuck and Old Crow. Human Rights Watch identified interviewees through community members who had monitored climate change impacts or had volunteered during community meetings organized to introduce our work. Interviews were conducted in English, or in Cree via an interpreter. Human Rights Watch researchers obtained oral informed consent from all interview participants, and provided oral explanations about the objectives of the research and how interviewees’ accounts would be used in the report. Interviewees were informed that they could stop the interview at any time or decline to answer any questions they did not feel comfortable answering. Interviewees were not compensated.
Field research for this report was conducted in First Nations in Yukon territory (Old Crow) and in Ontario (Peawanuck, Attawapiskat) and British Columbia (Skeena River watershed) provinces. These communities were chosen because they represent a variety of climatic zones and related traditional food sources, different levels of remoteness (fly-in communities as well as road accessible), different carbon pricing regimes (provincial and federal) as well as different community structures, (self-) government status and sizes. Researchers also conducted interviews in Whitehorse (Yukon), Toronto (Ontario), Victoria (British Columbia), and Ottawa (Ontario).
Researchers also reviewed and analyzed secondary sources—including academic research and peer-reviewed scientific studies documenting and projecting the impacts of climate change, media reports, and relevant Canadian laws and policies.
Human Rights Watch sent letters to the Prime Minister’s Office; the ministers of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Health Canada, and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada; relevant staff at CIRNAC, ISC, ECCC, Health Canada, and Natural Resources Canada; and to the premiers of Ontario, British Columbia, and Yukon in June and July 2020. The letters provided a summary of Human Rights Watch findings, included specific questions for the government, and offered to reflect the government’s response in the report. At time of writing, written responses were received from CIRNAC, ISC, ECCC, Natural Resources Canada, Health Canada, and the governments of Yukon and Ontario and are published on the Human Rights Watch website, linked to this report. No written response was received from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, or the government of British Columbia.
Human Rights Watch also sent letters to The North West Company and Arctic Co-op Ltd., the two largest food retailers in remote and northern communities, in July 2020. The letters provided a summary of Human Rights Watch findings, included specific questions, and offered to reflect the company’s response in the report. At time of writing, The North West Company met with Human Rights Watch, in addition to providing responses via email, but no response was received from Arctic Co-op Ltd.
Each First Nation is unique and none of the experiences described in the report can be generalized.
Elder: In First Nations, the term “Elder” is used to refer to someone who has attained a high degree of understanding of the community’s history, traditional teachings, and ceremonies, and earned the right to pass this knowledge on to others and to give advice and guidance. There is no specific age associated with the title “Elder,” though most Elders are older people. 
Right to food: This report uses the human right to food as defined under international human rights law to refer to the right of First Nations to have access to sufficient quantities of healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods. See the “Right to Food” section for more detail.
Food insecurity and food poverty: The terms “food poverty” and “food insecurity” are sometimes used interchangeably in public debate around reliance on food aid. This report uses “food poverty” to describe lack of consistent access to adequate healthy food, or more specifically, decreasing affordability and access to nutritious and traditional food sources for First Nations, and the related impacts on health and culture. “Food security” and “food insecurity” are only used when referring to more formal, systemic measurements of access to food at the individual or household level, which may not reflect additional variables of food poverty, such as whether a household has access to culturally-acceptable food.
First Nations in the Report
Weenusk First Nation, Ontario
The people of Weenusk First Nation have lived in the Hudson Bay Lowlands for generations. Today, the overall membership of Weenusk First Nation is about 595, approximately 300 of whom reside in Peawanuck. Peawanuck is located in Ontario’s far north, on the Weenusk River along the shore of Hudson Bay and is accessible only by plane or ice-road during winter months. Weenusk First Nation became a party to Treaty #9, one of the historic treaties between First Nations and the Canadian government, in 1929-1930.
Members of Weenusk First Nation hunt geese and other birds in the spring and fall when they migrate past the community. In the summer, they fish for trout, pike, and whitefish, among others, and go berry picking. In late fall they hunt moose. Caribou season runs throughout the fall and winter.
When substituting harvested food with store-bought food, community members rely on the Northern store on-reserve, though some order food from other vendors in Timmins, Ontario, over 750 km away. Only one winter road seasonally connects Peawanuck to the neighbouring province of Manitoba, stretching 772 km east along the Hudson Bay tree line and operating for about two months each winter.
Attawapiskat First Nation, Ontario
Attawapiskat First Nation is located along the Attawapiskat River, five kilometers inland from James Bay. There are over 2,800 members of Attawapiskat First Nation, but the local on-reserve population is 1,501. Attawapiskat became a party to Treaty #9, one of the historical treaties, in 1930.
Attawapiskat First Nation members hunt moose mainly in the fall, caribou mainly during the winter when winter roads and ice and snow cover provide better inland access by snowmobile, and waterfowl during spring and fall migration periods.
Community members supplement harvested food with store-bought items, purchased at the on-reserve Northern Store or a locally-owned convenience store. During the summer, supplies can be delivered by barge to Attawapiskat. During winter, the community is accessible by winter road for two months on average, depending on snow and ice condition.
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Yukon
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) has a population of approximately 800, with about 250 people living mainly in Old Crow, located at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine Rivers in the northern Yukon without any road access. The Vuntut Gwitchin have settled their land claims with the government, defining their traditional territory, approximately 50,000 square miles (roughly 129,499 square kilometers), which is located mostly in the Northern Yukon region. The VGFN final agreement, signed with the governments of Canada and the Yukon in 1993, gives the First Nation responsibility to uphold the rights and freedoms of its Citizens and enact laws on natural resource protection and harvesting of traditional food sources.
The community primarily relies on caribou for food, specifically, the Porcupine Caribou Herd (PCH), who migrate through Vuntut Gwitchin lands each spring and fall. The community also harvest duck and geese in the spring, and whitefish and salmon from the Porcupine River during the summer. Moose and other, smaller animals are harvested as needed year-round. Harvesting takes place up and down the Porcupine River and in Crow Flats. Community members supplement harvested food with store-bought food from a locally-operated Co-op or order from vendors in Whitehorse, arranging shipping via Air North, an airline that is partly owned by the Vuntut Gwitchin.
Skeena River Watershed First Nations, British Columbia
The Skeena River watershed in north western British Columbia is the homeland of the Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Wet'suwet'en peoples, as well as the Takla First Nation and Lake Babine Nation. Within the watershed, First Nations people live on and off-reserve. Their land claims are unsettled.
Salmon—principally sockeye—hold particular importance to Skeena River First Nations, both for cultural purposes and as a source of nutritious food. Community members supplement harvested food with store-bought food, and most Skeena River area communities are road accessible all-year. Local food banks in nearby urban centers like Terrace, as well as soup kitchens and school lunch programs also provide key sources of food for many.
First Nations in Canada
The Canadian Constitution recognizes three Indigenous groups—First Nations (referred to in the Constitution as “Indians”), Inuit, and Métis—as “Aboriginal peoples.” More than 1.67 million people in Canada (4.9 percent of the population) identify as First Nations, Inuit, or Métis according to the 2016 Census. This population is the youngest in Canada and was the fastest growing population between 2006 and 2016.
First Nations make up the largest group of Indigenous people in Canada, numbering over 900,000. “First Nations” is a collective term for what is a diverse group of more than 630 communities, representing more than 50 First Nations, and speaking more than 50 languages across Canada.
Before colonization, First Nations occupied large swaths of territory on which they harvested animals and plants for social, political, economic, and cultural purposes as well as for sustenance. However, the Indian Act, a law passed in 1876 and recognized as an instrument to suppress and destroy First Nations’ cultures and economies, sets out the framework of the reserve system, whereby federally-recognized First Nations, known as “bands,” are allotted small parcels of land for their use. Reserves, often in remote areas, were selected without consulting First Nations, and are a fraction of the size of many First Nations’ traditional territories. Almost half (44.2 percent) of First Nations people still live on-reserve, with the vast majority of reserves found in British Columbia, followed by Ontario and Manitoba.
First Nations and the Canadian State
The Canadian constitution establishes two levels of government: federal and provincial. In 1982, the Canadian constitution was amended to recognize the “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada,” a set of rights that includes the inherent right of self-government. However, Section 91(24) of the Canadian Constitution also grants the federal government jurisdiction over First Nations, while the Indian Act, along with other federal legislation, controls most aspects of life on-reserve, and continues to impose a paternalistic relationship between the Canadian state and First Nations governments with limited powers delegated from the federal government. While the government of Prime Minister Trudeau has, since 2016, repeatedly committed to establishing a “nation-to-nation, government-to-government” relationship with First Nations, based on recognition of their right to self-determination, including self-government, progress toward realizing this goal has been slow.
Looming Food Poverty in First Nations
As a direct result of historic marginalization, First Nations face a host of socio-economic inequalities, including inadequate and substandard housing, lack of safe drinking water, and obstacles to accessing healthcare services. The federal government’s main measure of socio-economic well-being, the Community Well-Being Index, has found a substantial gap between the average well-being of First Nations and non-Indigenous communities from 1981 to 2016.
While the majority of Canadians are “food secure,” meaning they have access to food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, First Nations households are much more likely to face food insecurity. The 2017-2018 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) by Statistics Canada reported that 28.2 percent of Indigenous households off-reserve experienced food insecurity compared to 11.1 percent of white households. The First Nations Regional Health Study, meanwhile, reports that approximately half of First Nations households on-reserve and in Northern communities nationwide were moderately or severely food insecure. Of those households with children, 43.2 percent were classified as food insecure.
Poor Health Outcomes in First Nations
The health outcomes of First Nations tend to be significantly poorer than the average Canadian. Life expectancy at birth is lower by 11.2 years in areas with high concentrations of First Nations compared to areas with low concentrations of Indigenous people. Only 37.8 percent of First Nations adults nationally reported that their health was excellent or very good, while 59 percent of all Canadians rated their health as excellent or very good. A 2018 parliamentary report, for example, found that First Nations people are much more likely to have chronic health conditions at a younger age compared to the general Canadian population and are likely to experience multiple chronic conditions.
Exceptionally high rates of diabetes pose a specific concern for many First Nations populations, with estimated rates three to five times higher among First Nations populations than the general population. The increased rate of diabetes among First Nations is tied, in part, to the erosion of harvesting practices and increased reliance on processed, store-bought foods. Traditional diets are often based on a combination of food sources that provide a protective effect from diabetes.
The health care available in First Nation communities is often limited and of lower quality compared with the care offered to the non-Indigenous population, partly due to inadequate and inequitable government funding. The complexity of overlapping responsibilities between levels of government also contributes to gaps in care.
I. Impacts of the Climate Crisis on First Nations’ Right to Food
Across Canada, climate change is making it increasingly difficult for First Nations to harvest food and live off the land in the ways their families have for generations. As global temperatures rise, there are fewer animals migrating and traditional plants growing on First Nations’ traditional territories. Unpredictable weather patterns and changing climactic conditions, meanwhile, are making harvesting costlier and more dangerous, and sometimes even impossible.
These impacts are projected to worsen as the climate warms. Canada, warming by about twice the global average, is bracing for continued increases in temperatures, more extreme weather, thawing permafrost and reduced snow and ice, and more wildfires, among other changes.
Climate change impacts are also increasing the cost of, and decreasing remote communities’ access to, store-bought foods. The combined impact of diminishing supplies of food for harvest and increasing reliance on less healthy purchased food can have dire consequences for community health and well-being, particularly for those who are already marginalized.
Changes to Canada’s Climate and Physical Environment
Between 1948 and 2016, mean annual temperature increase for all of Canada is estimated at 1.7˚C [3˚F] (roughly twice the mean global warming rate) and 2.3˚C [4.1˚F] for northern Canada (roughly three times the mean global warming rate). Across Canada, the greatest warming has occurred during winter, with a mean temperature increase of 3.3˚C [5.9˚F].
A 2019 report from Environment and Climate Change Canada outlines the consequences of rapid climate change for the country’s future, including more extreme heat, shorter snow and ice cover seasons, thinning glaciers, thawing permafrost, rising sea level, and an increased risk of summer water shortages. Increasing temperatures will intensify some weather extremes, and increase the severity and risk of heat waves, droughts, and wildfires.
Old Crow, Yukon
Community members in Old Crow, Yukon reported warmer temperatures. Robert Bruce, a 70-year-old resident, expressed concern: “I have seen lots of changes [on the land]. It's gotten a lot warmer. Some lakes are drying out.” Annual mean temperature in Old Crow has increased by roughly 1.8°C [3.2°F] from 1950-2013. Warming during winter has been particularly significant across the Yukon, ranging from an increase of 4-6°C [7.2-10.8°F] from 1948 to 2012.
Rising temperatures have been accompanied by decreased snow and ice cover. Community members described what that looks like on their land: thinner ice or lack of ice, rivers freezing later, and snow melting early. Some people recounted dramatic recent changes. Darius Elias, who works for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation government, observed, “Last year , the river was open year-round for the first time. The amount of times that the river freezes has reduced dramatically.”
Some people in Old Crow also noted, and scientific studies confirm, increasing incidences of unusually deep snow. Snowfall in Yukon is projected to become more variable, with periods of little snow and intense snowfall events likely becoming more common.
Old Crow is also experiencing permafrost degradation, increasing the risk of landslides, ground instability, and draining of lakes. Some community members, like Esau Schafer, who grew up living on the land with his family, also reported an increase of mudslides and riverbank erosion around Old Crow.
Elias told Human Rights Watch that a lake has drained in the area of the Old Crow Flats wetlands where his family has traditionally harvested. The Old Crow Flats have been an essential site for harvesting and cultural practices for centuries, its many lakes supporting diverse species, from migrating birds and caribou, to moose and fish. This area is experiencing significant lake drainage as a result of permafrost thaw and, according to a study, “catastrophic lake drainage” has become more than five times more frequent in recent decades. Elias described the impact of these changes: “When I was a kid I lived on the land from March to June … [but given the dramatic changes in the Old Crow Flats] only a few people still go there.”
Other people Human Rights Watch interviewed in Old Crow also expressed concern about increased forest fires. Robert Bruce, a grandfather from Old Crow who tries to live off traditional food sources because of health reasons, told Human Rights Watch that he worries forest fires may alter the migratory route of caribou. In recent years, fires have burned a larger swathe of territory in Yukon than is usual: in 2019, about 50 percent more area was burned in Yukon than average, while 2017 marked the largest area burned in a decade.
Climate Tipping Point: Boreal Forest
Three First Nations visited by Human Rights Watch are located within the boreal forest biome, which stretches from Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador. Like the Amazon, the Canadian boreal is an essential forest system, which serves an important role in storing carbon, and regulating the climate. Fires are a natural part of the boreal renewal cycle, but climate change is putting the boreal forest at risk. About 300 kilometers from Old Crow, in the Yukon Flats region of Alaska, for example, one study found evidence that climate change-enhanced fires have already broken millennia-long ecosystem resiliency due to exceptionally high fire frequency and extent of burning. Canada’s boreal forest may become a net source—instead of a sink—of carbon.
Skeena River Watershed, British Columbia
Urban localities in the Skeena River watershed have experienced a roughly 1°C increase in annual mean temperature from 1950 to 2013. Across northern British Columbia, winter warming has been particularly significant, ranging from 4-6°C [7.2-10.8°F] from 1948 to 2012.
Community members told Human Rights Watch how these changes are impacting First Nations. Chief Malii (Glen Williams) a Gitanyow Hereditary Chief in the Skeena River watershed said: “We used to have long and cold winters… Really cold, -30 or -40 degrees [Celsius] [-22 or -40°F] at Christmas… Now you sometimes don't see snow until Christmas. We have rains and thunder instead.”
Warmer winters have been accompanied by significant decreases in snow, and dropping water levels. The Skeena River has experienced record lows in recent years, and extreme drought conditions have caused some river channels to dry out completely in late August through October. Warmer winters, decreased snow pack, and reduced glacier meltwater are projected to result in decreasing summer streamflow in British Columbia. Hereditary Chief Malii observed: “We get less snow in the mountains… Hotter summers… Last year were the lowest water levels in 100 years. This year, it is worse.”
Consistent with warming surface air temperatures and lower summer water levels, water temperature is also rising in the Skeena River watershed.
There has also been an increase in forest fire activity in the Skeena River watershed. In northern British Columbia, 2017 and 2018 were record fire years, in part as a result of climate change. Hereditary Chief Ja Dim Ska Nes (Ronnie Matthew West), from the Lake Babine First Nation, said: “We have had many wildfires. This year, [people in my community] were the only ones who were safe in the entire [Babine Lake] area. It was never hot like that in the old days, so we have more fires today.” The risk of large and prolonged fire seasons is projected to increase as temperatures rise.
Attawapiskat and Peawanuck, Ontario
Both Attawapiskat and Peawanuck have experienced a roughly 1.6°C [2.8°F] increase in annual mean temperature from 1950 to 2013, and changing snow and ice conditions.
Community members told Human Rights Watch how ice and snow cover has become thin and unstable, while the time between the winter freeze and spring thaw has shortened. Elder John from Attawapiskat expressed concern about the impacts of warming temperatures on the migratory routes of animals: “The weather is just crazy. Natural law has been broken.”
Abraham Hunter, a councillor from Peawanuck, explained the drastic change in conditions: “We don’t see ice on the Bay anymore. We used to see it in June…The snow disappears in three days now. The water just runs off and does not stay…”
On land, decreased snow and ice cover and shorter frozen periods have been accompanied by permafrost loss.
Climate Tipping Point: Permafrost and Peatlands
There is a high risk of widespread thawing in northern Ontario, and some models project that the Hudson Bay Lowlands have already surpassed the temperature threshold for maintaining permafrost. Sam Hunter from Peawanuck remarked: “[Y]ou can actually see [the permafrost] thawing and turning into swampland, and trees are dying. Trees that sink right into the muskeg were once four or six feet on dry land.” Permanent permafrost loss could have serious repercussions for the ability of this biome to maintain its significant contribution to global carbon-cycling and climate regulation.
Climate-Driven Loss of Traditional Food Sources
In recent decades, the percentage of food harvested from traditional sources in Indigenous diets has declined as a result of decreased access to land, loss of harvesting skills, increasing costs or restrictions on hunting and increased access to store-bought foods. However, many First Nations continue to rely on harvested foods as a significant component of their overall diet.
Gitanyow Hereditary Chief Malii told Human Rights Watch, “When we [as the leadership of the for the Gitanyow] did a study in 2010, about 80 percent of our people used traditional food.” He described how his grandfather called the animals and plants that make up their traditional diet “dinner table” in his Indigenous language. He recalled: “[My grandfather] described the moose, berries, and fish like that. He also referred to it as [a] bank.” Hereditary Chief Malii, like many First Nations people Human Rights Watch spoke to, worries that the bank is nearly empty and the impacts will be devastating. This concern reflects the situation in many First Nations.
Changes in Species Availability
Impacts of climate change have altered the availability of First Nations’ traditional food sources in multiple ways. Community members told Human Rights Watch that they observed significant and increasing declines in the quantity of animals and plants available for harvesting due, in part, to changes in the environment they believe are a result of climate change, including changing ice and permafrost, wildfires, warming water temperatures, changes in precipitation and water levels, and unpredictable weather.
Changing Migration Patterns
First Nations members told Human Rights Watch that climate change is impacting the migration patterns of bird species and caribou they harvest.
Community members in Peawanuck described how early and quick snow melts impact the availability of migrating geese, such as snow geese. Mary Jane Wabano said: “If the snow melts, the geese won't fly closer to the community; they used to fly closer when there was lots of snow… Geese go where the snow is.” An Elder in Peawanuck agreed: “We have warm weather in March, all the snow is gone before the geese come and it impacts how they fly. They fly higher and are harder to get.”
Peawanuck community members also said that caribou has become less available due to changing migration routes. Sam Hunter, a hunter and community climate change monitor, says the unpredictability of caribou migration is tied to changing seasonal freeze-thaw cycles: if there’s an early or late freeze up, “[the caribou] won't be walking in their migration route. They'll be walking way out there on the bay or way inland.” Surveys undertaken since 2000 suggest the range of Hudson Bay caribou has shifted eastward. Climate change, which has wrought abrupt ecological change in the region since the 1990s, pushing the southern Hudson Bay area toward a climate “tipping point,” has likely contributed to this shift.
Old Crow residents, meanwhile, worry that climate change-enhanced forest fires are causing caribou to shift migration routes farther from the community, decreasing numbers of caribou physically accessible to harvest. The Porcupine Caribou Herd (PCH) usually passes near the community each spring (April /May) and autumn (August/September). However, recent fires near Old Crow may be altering this pattern. Elizabeth Kyikavichik, a 72-year old childcare worker, told Human Rights Watch: “I am concerned about the caribou. Already now there is less caribou [nearby]... They might have changed the route because of the wildfires.”
Research shows that caribou alter their distributions in response to wildfires. It can take more than 60 years for caribou to return after a fire because of the slow growth of their key-food source, lichens. As the climate continues to warm, increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires, this timeframe may lengthen, risking a severe disturbance of PCH migration patterns.
Reduced and Different Animal Populations
Members of communities reported significant changes in the population of traditionally harvested species in their territories as a result of climate change impacts on habitat.
First Nations members in the Skeena River watershed in British Columbia are concerned about decreasing moose populations. For example, in the 5,000 km2 Nass Wildlife Area near Terrace, there was a 70 percent reduction in the moose population from 1997 to 2011. While the exact cause of this decline is unclear, it may be tied, in part, to habitat loss caused by climate change-inflated mountain pine beetle infestations and salvage logging of infested forests. Mountain pine beetle infestations are predicted to worsen with climate warming as drought-stressed forests are more vulnerable to infestation.
In British Columbia, warming temperatures are also increasing the risk of moose mortality from winter ticks, a dangerous parasite that previously could not survive the colder climate at northern latitudes.
Across Canada, caribou herds are declining due to deterioration of their habitat and increased human disturbance, primarily caused by resource development. Climate change is likely accelerating the decline of some populations as it affects the nutrient composition of caribou food sources, as well as access to food, including important lichens, and calving grounds. Eastern migratory caribou, the type of caribou harvested by members of Peawanuck, for example, were listed as endangered in 2018 due to an 80 percent decline over the past three generations, caused in part by decrease in habitat quality associated with climate change and development.
Caribou are particularly susceptible to climate-driven impacts such as altered forage quality and quantity during summer and winter, increased icing in winter, change in spring timing, and increased summer insect harassment. When their numbers decrease due to mortality, reduced birth rates, or range alteration, it obviously affects the communities who rely on them for food. A 2004 study projects that while warming will likely increase summer food sources for the PCH, other climate change impacts such as increased insect harassment and greater snow depths could result in a herd decline of up to 85 percent in the next 40 years. “[W]ithout the caribou there is no Gwitchin people,” said Elias.
Climate change also affects key habitable areas for salmon in Canada, as their river and/or oceans migration, spawning, incubation, and rearing are sensitive to temperature increases and changes in water levels. In simple terms, less hospitable habitable areas for salmon—less salmon. In British Columbia, scientific studies have found that salmon populations have been negatively affected by increasing temperatures in rivers. Many provincial salmon stocks are considered at moderate to high risk of extinction, and further threatened by climate change impacts.
First Nations see less salmon in the Skeena River watershed in British Columbia, a population decline they believe is linked, in part, to warming temperatures. Brian Michell, a fisheries technologist at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, who monitors fish in the area, said: “The sockeye [salmon] went down from 30,000 in 1990 to 6,000 today... Every year we have been getting less and less... The river and the creeks are warming up to 20 degrees. This year has been the lowest I have ever seen [since monitoring started in 1994].”
Community members from Old Crow also told Human Rights Watch that warming waters have reduced their ability to fish. “We have a problem with our salmon because the [river] water has warmed,” said Robert Bruce from Old Crow. He has diabetes and tries to live off of traditional food sources, but struggles to do so: “It is more difficult to fish. Last year, we did not find any salmon in the river.”
Communities within British Columbia’s Skeena River watershed are also concerned about low water levels, which make it more difficult for salmon to spawn. Hereditary Chief Ja Dim Ska Nes, from Lake Babine First Nation, said: “Salmon is… what we live from… Salmon is food security for us, that is no longer guaranteed.”
Berries and Other Plants
Changing temperatures linked to climate change also affect berries and plants used for food and traditional medicines, often picked by women. For example, climate change will likely cause large shifts in the range and seasonal growth of the huckleberry in British Columbia, which could impact First Nations’ harvests. Some studies connect drier weather with reduced number and size of berries that community members rely on. Berries have also undergone a distributional change in some locations, decreased in others, and been subject to disease in yet others.
Marietta, a junior Elder from Attawapiskat, said: “This summer we did not have strawberries and raspberries. It was too cold. We used to have lots of berries.”
In the Skeena River watershed, where massive wildfires in the past few years resulted in the evacuation of entire communities, the fires have affected traditional berry picking.
First Nations members interviewed by Human Rights Watch described seeing new, unfamiliar species in their traditional territories. In Peawanuck, Sam Hunter, a community climate monitor, includes garter snakes and mountain lions among the list of new species. Elders in Peawanuck, meanwhile, noted that in addition to warmer water the community is seeing Atlantic salmon and other “big water” fish more common along the Atlantic coast. Warmer weather impacts migratory birds as well. One Elder noted: “We see new species… 15 years ago, pelicans arrived, then turkey vultures came. We have no name for that [in our language] because we’d never seen it before.” Chief Ignace Gull has seen similar changes to migratory birds in Attawapiskat, “water is getting warmer, the ice melts early. Other things—what we see today are pelicans migrating North; cormorants, we see many of them.”
Challenges in Accessing Harvesting Areas
Accessing traditional food sources is based on harvesters’ ability to safely get out on the land in a timely and cost-effective manner, which is affected by changing weather, ice conditions, wildfires, and water levels. In general, climate change is causing more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns that make it more difficult and dangerous for First Nations to access harvesting opportunities. These changes will likely worsen as the climate warms.
Shorter Harvesting Seasons
Community members from Peawanuck and Attawapiskat described how changes in snow and ice conditions have resulted in a reduced period of solid ice and sufficient snow cover necessary to support transport by snowmobile, commonly used to hunt moose and caribou. In Peawanuck, community leadership described a winter where exceptionally early snowmelt resulted in only two weeks of winter hunting, instead of the usual month. In Old Crow, warmer weather has caused a much shorter winter harvesting season in recent years, preventing access to caribou and trap lines for smaller mammals that provide an income for community members.
In the Skeena River watershed, 2018 record forest fires reduced access to harvesting areas. In Burns Lake, British Columbia, Wilf Plasway Junior told Human Rights Watch: “When the fires started they closed off one area where we go fishing. People could not fish to fill up their winter stocks.”
Even where conditions permit travel to harvesting areas, Sam Hunter, a community member from Peawanuck, said changing climatic conditions can impact the success of a harvesting trip: “Sometimes the snow just disappears in two, three days, and... before winter, when it freezes kind of late, sometimes we miss the [hunting] seasons that we used to follow, like caribou hunts, or in the spring goose hunts. Sometimes we can't get anything.”
Dangerous and Difficult Conditions
Climate change has made harvesting more dangerous. Ice thinning can lead to harvesters breaking through the ice, becoming injured and losing equipment. Increased storms, unpredictable weather, and flooding have made harvesting more dangerous. The results in less food harvested to eat for that season; and fewer youth joining hunts, missing out on opportunities to learn harvesting methods.
Margaret Mack, a nurse from Peawanuck who regularly takes her grandkids hunting, said: “We used to know the weather and conditions of the river, and it’s a whole lot different now [… Now] the rivers are dangerous. My brother broke into the ice with a skidoo. It’s gotten unpredictable. The river gets unstable… Spring hunt is dangerous for kids because it is a flood zone.”
Wabano, from Peawanuck, explained: “I only wish that we had the same winter we used to have so we could go hunt. It is difficult for us to go on the land when the spring thaw is too rapid.”
Old Crow residents are also worried about the risks of unstable ice conditions. The changing and unpredictable environment also makes harvesting difficult in the summer. First Nations members from Peawanuck and Old Crow described how unusually shallow and slow rivers make it harder to travel and sometimes prevents community members from going hunting and fishing. Esau Schafer from Old Crow observed the widening of the river because of erosion over the years. He said: “The water spreads and gets wider. It's hard to travel in shallow water with modern boats.”
Increased Financial Costs Related to Climate Change
Increasing costs due to climate impacts can also be a barrier to harvesting: preparing for unpredictable weather requires extra food, gas, and supplies, shifting snow and ice conditions mean altering traditional travel routes, which can result in higher fuel costs and longer travel times, while shifting migration patterns increase the likelihood of needing to undertake multiple trips.
In general, harvesting is expensive, requiring equipment, transportation, fuel, and food for the time hunting, trapping, or fishing. Peawanuck community member and hunter, Sam Hunter, explained: “Especially when we don't get anything, it's expensive…With gas and grub… it's like, CAD$1000 a time. And if you keep going out, if you don't get anything, it adds up.” In Attawapiskat, for example, 40 percent of households that harvest spend over half of their income on harvesting.
As community members need to spend longer periods of time to harvest species that are further away or in unfamiliar locations, the cost of harvesting also extends to lost work and school time. Georgina Wabano, from Peawanuck, described how the time needed to secure an adequate harvest is increasing, requiring the additional expense of multiple or longer trips: “When I hear my grandparents talking, they say, when they used to go hunting, there was such an abundance of food. Like, … you would only hunt like a day or two. And then you would have what you needed to feed your family. Nowadays you will have people that will go out, all spring. They leave by Ski-Doo, and they end up coming home by boat. So, about a month, they're … hunting daily to get what they need.”
Limited Alternatives to Traditional Food Sources
The impacts of climate change on First Nations’ ability to access traditional foods are compounded by the limited availability of affordable, nutritious alternatives.
Transported foods—the main supplement to traditional harvested foods—have historically been disproportionately expensive in remote and northern communities due to in part to high operating costs. To reach northern and remote communities, food sourced in the south must be transported over vast distances, past the reach of all-season roads and rail, requiring expensive, weather-dependent transport by air, sea, or seasonal winter roads, dramatically increasing food costs.
The high costs of transport particularly impact access to nutritious food, especially produce. Fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, and canned) are more expensive than low-nutrient, processed store-bought foods (foods high in sugar, fat, and starch, like cereal, grains, potato chips, and candy) in northern markets, often by several orders of magnitude. Some of this price differential can be attributed to increased transport costs for fruits and vegetables, which are generally more susceptible to spoilage during shipment, have shorter shelf lives, and require a controlled temperature during shipment and storage, while less nutritious foods like cereal, grains, potato chips, and candy are typically dry, resist spoilage, and have stable shelf lives.
Sometimes foods are spoiled by the time they reach communities. In one survey of northern First Nations, 82 percent of respondents stated their store often or sometimes sold expired food, while 57 percent said that perishable food was not usually in good condition. Kyle Linklater, a community member from Peawanuck said: “[Vegetables] don't last too long. And by the time we get them, they're either rotten or just about to be.”
In remote communities visited by Human Rights Watch, families spend a significantly larger percentage of their income to secure healthy and nutritious food than they would in southern or urban locations. In Old Crow, a family of four spends roughly 41 percent of their monthly budget to eat a healthy diet. In Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, by contrast, a family would only need to spend 17.5 percent of their monthly budget on the same diet. In Attawapiskat and Peawanuck, a family of four would spend almost half their monthly budget for food (47 percent in Attawapiskat; 45.8 percent in Peawanuck). The same family’s food budget would go twice as far in Toronto, where a family of four spends 17.4 percent of their monthly budget on healthy food. Families whose income falls below the median income reported in each community would have to allocate even more of their monthly budget to secure a healthy diet from store-bought food.
Climate change will further increase the cost of imported nutritious food options. According to one report, climate change impacts on agriculture contributed to an over 17 percent increase in the cost of vegetables in Canada in 2019. As the agricultural sector continues to face climate change impacts such as unpredictable crop yields, heat-wave livestock threats, pasture availability and pest and disease outbreaks, costs will continue to rise. Overall, “annual food expenditure for the average Canadian family is predicted to rise by $487 in 2020.” These price hikes will be felt much more intensely in northern and remote communities where food costs, particularly the cost of produce, is already a barrier to healthy eating.
Climate change and transport costs are not the only drivers of high food costs in northern markets. Research suggests that limited retail competition in small, remote communities may also play a role. The Northern Store operator, The North West Company (NWC), a for-profit company traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, is the only grocery store in 54 percent of communities in the territories and provincial Norths that do not have year-round road access. In communications with Human Rights Watch, NWC said that while it may not face on-the-ground retail competition, it competes with customers “out-shopping” in major regional centres when they leave their home communities for vacation, business, or medical reasons.
Some community members have criticized NWC for failing to provide affordable healthy, nutritious food options. As Mack explained, a system that is dominated by one retailer raises concerns about limited health options: “Northern [Store] controls what you eat.” Retailers in northern markets have limited incentive to stock nutrient dense, but perishable fresh produce due to the high cost of transport, and risk of spoilage. The North West Company’s website does note a 20 percent increase in sales since 2017 from Health Happy, a program that makes lower sugar, salt, fat, and caffeine content food products more accessible in remote communities, but the company told Human Rights Watch that the demand for these products remains limited.
In 2019, NWC set a three-year commitment to “invest in lower food pricing” in stores in northern Canada. The company attributes increased sales in northern Canadian stores 2020 in part to lower food prices.
In order to have more control over their food supply, some communities operate their own grocery stores. Old Crow, for example, decided not to renew operating contracts with the NWC, instead, turning to the Arctic Co-operatives Ltd., a co-operative federation owned and controlled by 32 community-based co-operative business enterprises located in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon. But the Co-op faces the same logistical challenges as NWC, and according to some interviewees, cost and limited selection of fresh produce remains an issue. Councillor Esau Schafer told Human Rights Watch: “Even though the community now owns the store, many don't find food they can afford.” Tracy Rispin, the store manager in Old Crow, said: “We get criticized a lot and visitors take pictures of the price tags. But groceries are flown in from Edmonton or Calgary [which makes them expensive].”
Another option for households to buy healthier, affordable food is to order it from southern stores. While individual orders may offer access to more variety of foods than are available in community, they still face the challenge and cost of long-distance transport, and without the added savings that retailers secure through bulk orders. Further, while a limited number of registered retailers offer a variety of purchase methods, ordering food often requires a credit card—which can be a barrier for some low-income families. Community members without bank accounts or credit history face significant challenges in accessing credit. In general, First Nations members are underserved by financial institutions and are more likely to be unbanked. For remote communities, travel to financial institutions in urban centers to open an account can be a barrier.
Climate Change Increasing Food Transport Costs: Winter Roads
The already high costs of imported foods in northern and remote communities are increasing further due to warming temperatures, resulting in later freeze-up and earlier thaw, thereby shortening the winter road season. Built seasonally over frozen land and water, winter roads are constructed out of compounded snow and ice that is regularly flooded and frozen until it reaches the required thickness to support transport. In Ontario alone, there are more than 3000 kilometers of winter roads, built and maintained by 29 First Nations and one municipality with financial and technical backing from provincial and federal governments. The cost of building and maintaining winter roads is significant, but still much less than permanent roads.
Winter roads are essential to remote and northern First Nations to deliver supplies, access traditional foods; maintain social networks through social and cultural events; and to access basic social services such as health care. They are essential in lowering cost of living, including food costs.
Winter roads are dependent on weather patterns that are becoming increasingly variable due to climate change. Winter road construction requires sub-zero temperatures and little snow to form a frozen base, followed by enough snow to compact into adequate road thickness and build crossings over water. If temperatures rise above freezing during the winter road season, it risks eroding or weakening.
In recent years, winter road seasons have been increasingly unreliable. For example, the 2019-2020 winter road season started as much as two weeks late for some northern Ontario First Nations, with some communities only being able to transport partial loads because of inadequate ice thickness. The quality of winter roads is also increasingly variable, limiting the weight of vehicles that can safely travel the roads and decreasing the frequency with which transport can bring supplies to remote communities. In Attawapiskat, then Chief Ignace Gull told Human Rights Watch: “[Winter road season] is only two months now, previously it was December to April…The road is a lifeline for people to visit family. They use it to buy bulk shopping.”
In Ontario, government and independent reports have projected increasingly limited windows of operation for winter roads. A 2014 report by consulting firm Deloitte, for example, projected that operating windows for winter roads serving Ontario’s central and northern First Nations’ communities would decline 12 to 20 percent by 2050, and 20 to 40 percent by 2100.
Impact of Increasing Food Poverty on First Nations Health and Culture
Existing inequalities facing First Nations, combined with climate impacts on access to food have adversely affected their health and culture. Community members described having to skip meals or purchase less healthy, but more affordable food in local stores to supplement inadequate supplies of traditional food. These coping mechanisms are associated with serious health concerns, especially for older people, children, and those with chronic illnesses. The impact on cultural identity associated with loss of traditional food also imposes a toll on physical and mental health at both an individual and community level.
Negative Health Outcomes
Studies have shown that loss of traditional food and related harvesting practices, along with increased reliance on processed, lower-nutrient imported foods is tied to increased negative health outcomes in northern and remote communities, such as increased chronic diseases, and in particular, higher rates of obesity and diabetes, including among First Nations children.
One Elder from Peawanuck explained: “We survive only on wild food. If the season is bad, we have to rely on the store, and it is not very good. I suspect that’s where all the diabetes come from… in 1950, there were no known cases of diabetes. The average person in 1950s would only go to the store three times a year, [and] otherwise lived off the land.”
Now, climate-exacerbated food poverty is adding to these risks: increasingly requiring community members to skip meals or buy more low-nutrient store-bought food. Older people interviewed for this report, for example, have cut down the number of meals they eat daily as sourcing traditional food becomes more difficult. One 77-year-old Elder from Old Crow who typically hunts for caribou and traps during winter months, said: “This year it was hard for us to go to the land because there was not much snow. . . [which means] not eating very much. I only eat one meal per day.”
Skipping meals is particularly dangerous for people with type 2 diabetes, which is present in elevated rates among First Nations people. One study found that among older adults with type 2 diabetes, those diagnosed with malnutrition are nearly 70 percent more likely to die of any cause versus those without diagnosed nutrition deficiencies. This study takes on a particular urgency and concern in the context of the global Covid-19 pandemic, where pre-existing conditions such as diabetes have been associated with increased severity of the disease and risk of mortality, and as Covid-19 is causing delays and interruptions to food production and transport, making for even less reliable access to nutritious food in remote communities.
As climate impacts increasingly reduce availability of and access to traditional foods, skipping meals will likely be an increasingly common tactic given the high costs of purchased foods. A nurse in Peawanuck explained, “our diet is geese. You have to get as much as you can. You have to plan out your food. It has to last until the geese arrive [again]... I have an elderly mother, we provide for her. To supplement [with store food] is very expensive.” Research carried out in Ontario First Nations indicates that 32 percent of households worry that their traditional food supplies would run out before they could get more.
Adults often hide hunger, so when families face food shortages at home it is most visible to educators and school administrators when children go to school. In several First Nations Human Rights Watch visited, teachers reported that some children do not get enough food at home. Social stigma surrounding poverty and fears related to the removal of First Nations children from their families by social services for poverty related reasons influence how these issues are managed. Elias from Old Crow said: “[I]f people do not have enough, they will not admit it. They are proud.” Roger, a councillor from Attawapiskat, said: “People go hungry, but don’t show it.”
Some studies suggest that malnutrition at an early age may increase risks of developing Type 2 diabetes. While diabetes tends to be present in individuals 50 years and older, it has been appearing earlier and at increasing rates among First Nations children.
In road-accessible communities, low income families often rely on food banks to make up for the challenges of obtaining traditional foods. Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na'Moks (John Risdale), from the Skeena River watershed, said: “Low income families go to the food bank when we should be going out to the territories. When we were growing up we never thought we'd need a food bank.” For remote communities, food banks are not common.
School food programs offer another support for families. One counsellor from Old Crow put it simply, “Some kids go hungry to school….” A teacher in Smithers, British Columbia said: “There is a lot of kids who do not eat on the weekends. We have programs here where kids take food home for the weekend. Lots of schools have lunch-programs but they do not offer traditional food.”
Loss of traditional food also impacts what community members purchase for food. Tracy Rispin, Co-op store manager in Old Crow, observed: “People buy differently when they have traditional food. Not having the caribou is devastating.” For instance, studies show that some First Nations’ people tend to stock up on less expensive dry foods (like rice and pasta) when it is cheaper, changing nutrition intake. One study of First Nations in British Columbia found that eating traditional foods was associated with a decreased intake of ultra-processed foods.
First Nations older people and people with chronic diseases are particularly vulnerable to the health implications of food poverty making it imperative to eat a healthy diet. For many First Nations older people, access to traditional food is an essential part of eating healthy. Medical providers interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed concern that people with chronic diseases such as diabetes do not follow the recommended diet for cost reasons. A 58-year-old Elder from Peawanuck who has lost his vision and lives off disability benefits said: “We cannot eat vegetables, they are too expensive. We buy ground beef, milk and cereals at the store.”
Parents struggling to provide food for their children are also sometimes left with few options beyond cheaper, less healthy, imported foods. An educator in Peawanuck said: “kids are impacted by poor food options...teeth are rotting out of their mouth.” First Nations children in Yukon obtain over 90 percent of their dietary intake from grains and other foods high in sugar and fat, creating a high risk for chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease.
Climate-induced food insecurity adds to an already significant mental health crisis facing many First Nations as a result of historical and intergenerational trauma, discriminatory government policies, enforced separation of children from families and communities, insufficient access to mental health care and psychosocial support, and more. Indigenous people die by suicide at a rate three times higher than non-Indigenous people.
Impact of Canada’s Historic First Nations Polices on Culture, Food, and Health
Canada’s long history of assimilationist government policies and practices have eroded, and at times expressly prohibited, First Nations cultural traditions, taken First Nations children away from their communities, and systematically marginalized First Nations people to this day.
The Indian Residential School System, which spanned the 1870s through 1996, offers one stark example of how Canada’s assimilationist approach to First Nations populations has had long-term impacts on their well-being, food poverty, and health. The Canadian government oversaw the forced removal of over 150,000 Indigenous children to residential schools explicitly intended to break the cultural ties between Indigenous children and their communities. At these schools, children were subject to egregious verbal, physical, and sexual violence.
Food poverty played a significant role in the trauma and negative impacts of residential schools. Children taken from their home community and traditional lands were deprived of access to traditional food, and the ability to harvest. As one residential survivor told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 2008 to document impacts of the residential school system on survivors, “the people that went back [to their home communities] had to relearn how to survive. And at that time, survival was fishing, hunting, and trapping.” Mack from Peawanuck explained to Human Rights Watch: “I went to Fort Albany to residential school. We were taken away from our traditional life. We never left that building. We did not come home for Christmas. We were always confined to that building. We only went outside for half an hour [a day]. When we came back as teenagers, we needed to learn how to live off the land.”
At residential schools, prolonged hunger and malnutrition were a common occurrence. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the “government knowingly chose not … to ensure that kitchens and dining rooms were properly equipped... and, most significantly, that food was purchased in sufficient quantity and quality for growing children.” Students were forced to consume spoiled or rotten food, and even, in some instances, forced to eat their own vomit.
This program of neglect and abuse has had long-term, generational health implications for First Nations in Canada, and studies have found that physical health outcomes of survivors and their descendants, such as increased risk of obesity and diabetes, are almost certainly tied to prolonged malnutrition experienced by residential school students.
Negative Impacts on First Nations Cultures
The centrality of traditional food and going out on the land to First Nations cultures means that climate change is threatening not only the food supply, but also the land-based knowledge systems related to it, and ultimately the very identity and socio-cultural fabric of First Nations.
It All Comes Back to the Land
Although there is significant cultural variation between First Nations, connection to the land is central to all. Many First Nations maintain a system of belief centered on maintaining a relationship to the land based on reciprocity: care for the land, take only what you need, and the land will care for you, supplying all of the necessities of life, including food.
First Nations’ control over their traditional lands is limited in Canada, sometimes as a result of colonial treaties that remain in place to this day. Reserve lands account for only about 0.3 percent of Canada’s land mass, and are still classified as federal Crown land, meaning First Nations do not have title to the land. For many First Nations, their surrounding traditional territory is now provincial Crown land, leading to a confusion of jurisdiction when it comes to exercising traditional harvesting rights.
Since 1973—when the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that Indigenous peoples have a legal right to the lands they occupied before the arrival of European settlers—the Canadian government has attempted to clarify the specifics of Indigenous land rights through modern treaties addressing self-government, land ownership and management, resource benefits, and more. However, while land claims and self-government agreements are an important way for First Nations to secure their land and assert their harvesting rights, the processes to resolve land claims in Canada are slow and onerous, taking years to resolve.
As climate change impacts result in reduced access to traditional food sources and decreased ability of First Nations to safely spend time on the land, it threatens not only communities’ food supplies but also their ability to engage in cultural practices and ultimately maintain their cultural identities. In key part, climate change is threatening the land-based knowledge systems that are essential to harvesting. First Nations peoples use these knowledge systems, called “Indigenous knowledge” or “traditional knowledge,” to predict and determine seasonal cycles and optimum timing for harvesting activities, but this knowledge, based on generations of land-based observations, is increasingly unreliable as climate change makes seasonal patterns and weather conditions less predictable.
An Elder in Attawapiskat First Nation explained the change: “A lot of people […] can’t read weather anymore. My father would go out and predict the weather. My mother would say ‘Old man, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow’ and he used to look at the formation of clouds, and could say ‘in three or four days [will be] bad weather… [now] it’s crazy, the weather is hard to predict, suddenly it’s good, suddenly it’s bad… animals and birds change.”
Indigenous knowledge is not static, but climate change is challenging First Nations’ ability maintain and grow their land-based knowledge systems. Indigenous knowledge, including knowledge about harvesting and cultural histories, is taught and passed down the generations through hands-on learning, requiring time spent on the land harvesting. Georgina Wabano, from Peawanuck, affirmed, “[O]ur people learn from seeing and doing, right? You can’t teach a culture by writing it out on a paper.” As climate change degrades habitat and increases the danger of harvesting, limiting harvesting opportunities, communities face less opportunities to develop and transmit Indigenous knowledge.
These impacts on Indigenous knowledge and harvesting practices also carry significant implications for mental health and wellbeing among First Nations people. Studies report a sense of loss related to the inability to pass on Indigenous knowledge, leading to feelings of anxiety, sadness, depression, fear, and anger as a result of climate change. Research also shows that certain populations, who are disproportionately affected by climate change, are more prone to experiencing harm to their mental health.
“My biggest fear of climate change [is] losing everything. Losing our tradition over the weathers, over melting ice,” said father and hunter Kyle Linklater from Peawanuck. “[I]f we lose what we have now, what will we have to show our children in the future?”
Inability or difficulty maintaining cultural and spiritual practices due to climate impacts on culturally important wildlife and sacred places also impact mental health. “When I talk about [loss of traditional food] I just end up crying,” said Lorraine Netro, from Old Crow, noting she thinks of Elders in their last stages of life, newborns, and expectant mothers, who are supposed to be fed traditional food at these stages. Some people interviewed for this report said that anxiety surrounding climate change impacts and loss of connection to the land has exacerbated mental health conditions. Erin Linklater, former Director of Health and Social Programs with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government said: “We have had many suicides in Old Crow. There are many factors, but the loss of culture plays a role.”
Further, climate change impacts can reduce First Nations access to community-based mental health resources. Being on the land and maintaining land-based harvesting practices are essential to First Nations’ wellbeing. Studies have shown that being on the land enhances Indigenous mental health, and climate change impacts are reducing time spent on the land. Wabano, a traditional adviser from Peawanuck who helps run a provincial program to prevent suicide, reported: “Our program is land based and we have planned activities outside, like camping and hunting and fishing, to prevent suicide… [but] every spring is now different. It is difficult to go out and hunt.” Furthermore, the climate impacts on infrastructure—degradation of ice roads, damage to roads and airstrips—also limit access to mental health services and psychosocial support.
Community Resilience in the Face of Diminishing Traditional Food
As climate change puts traditional food sources in jeopardy, many are coming together—both within communities and across Nations—to maintain cultural identity and food sovereignty in the face of this threat.
As an alternative to relying on costly store-bought foods transported from the South, some remote and northern First Nations are investing in local food-production projects such as gardens and greenhouses. Others, including several visited by Human Rights Watch, maintain strong traditional food sharing networks that have helped address climate-driven loss of traditional food. Kyle Linklater from Peawanuck, said: “There's always someone in the community… that's going to help us ... Give us caribou, if they got some, or if they went fishing out in the Bay, they would bring us back fish. Someone's always there to help us.” In Attawapiskat, 95 percent of households who harvest, share, and about 70 percent of households receive harvested food from others. In Old Crow community hunts remain a way to conserve harvesting resources and share food during lean years.
In the Skeena River watershed, communities initiated a new form of inter-community food sharing in 2017 when salmon returns were at an all-time low, visiting the neighbouring Nisga’a territory to access healthier fish stocks. Chief Na’Moks, a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief said: “I’ve never had to do that before; I’ve always had access to salmon. This was the first time we had to reach out to [the Nisga’a]. There was an opportunity for us to get some salmon, in particular for our elders, and we were fortunate enough to get some.”
As communities witness decreasing harvesting opportunities they are also marshalling their resources to monitor and track climate impacts, often with limited fiscal support from federal, provincial, or territorial governments. Sam Hunter from Peawanuck is monitoring the thawing permafrost, but despite the significant implications of this thaw—for community food, infrastructure, and more— government support has been mixed: “[The provincial government] cut all climate change funding… there's been no support at all… the federal government is helping, but, what kind of direction they're taking, I'm not sure, because I'm running the climate change program in Peawanuck, [and I] kind of feel like I'm on my own.”
First Nations are also taking steps to reduce their own contribution to global emissions by transitioning to cleaner energy. Old Crow, for example, which declared a climate emergency in May 2019, has undertaken the largest solar power project in Yukon with financial support from the federal and territorial governments. The Vuntut Gwitchin government also set up a wind measurement tower in summer 2020 to investigate the potential for wind energy to meet Old Crow’s electricity demand in the winter months. “Technology is changing, and so are we,” said Old Crow community member Erika Tizya.
Indigenous peoples in Canada have increasingly referred to “food sovereignty” as a more relevant standard than food security. Food sovereignty, first defined by La Vía Campesina, a movement in Latin America, is the “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”
Across Canada, Indigenous people have emphasized the important nexus between food sovereignty and community resiliency to climate change, underscoring the need to support local food production and traditional harvesting. While Indigenous-led food sovereignty efforts across Canada vary from place to place and nation to nation, reflecting the diversity of Indigenous food systems, First Nations expressions of food sovereignty often share an emphasis on the sacredness of traditional food, self-determination, connection to the land, and revitalization of Indigenous languages.
II. Foreseeable Harms: Government Obligations to Address Climate Impacts on First Nations’ Food Poverty
When Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau was first elected Canada's Prime Minister in October 2015, ending a near-decade rule by the Conservative party, he promised to foster a “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship” with First Nations. However, in the four years of its first term, the Liberal government repeatedly pursued an adversarial relationship with First Nations in court.
Positively, Trudeau’s government acknowledged the need to address climate change, developing the 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (PCF). While First Nations were largely excluded from the drafting of the framework, the federal government made efforts to work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples during its implementation, including through the creation of high-level climate change policy tables for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. The federal government said: “These tables will provide a structured, collaborative approach for ongoing engagement with Indigenous Peoples in the implementation of the Pan-Canadian Framework and on broader clean growth and climate change priorities. This will help ensure that Indigenous Peoples are full and effective partners in advancing clean growth and addressing climate change.” However, Environment and Climate Change Canada told Human Rights Watch that these tables are still in their “infancy” despite now being in place for three years, as it has taken time to build needed trust. Regarding the senior table with First Nations, the First Nations-Canada Joint-Committee on Climate Action (JCCA) Co-Chair Tonio Sadik told Human Rights Watch that the JCCA has made “significant progress building mutual understanding between federal government officials and First Nations,” but that “there is still significant work ahead including the need to explore innovative, self-determined funding models for First Nations-led climate action, and to position First Nations as full and effective partners in the federal carbon pollution pricing system.”
In 2019, Trudeau was re-elected as head of a minority government. In his mandate letters to the new cabinet, Trudeau again emphasized the importance of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. He further highlighted the need to address climate change as a key priority, and committed to, among other steps: providing financial support to Indigenous communities transitioning away from diesel reliance, and introducing a plan, to be grounded in Indigenous knowledge, to conserve 25 percent of Canada’s land by 2025 as parks, protected areas, or conservation areas, working toward 30 percent by 2030. That same year, Trudeau pledged to put Canada on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
In the September 2020 Speech from the Throne—which outlines the federal government’s priorities at the start of a new session of parliament—the government reiterated its commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and promised to legislate this target. The government also committed to “continue to work with partners – including directly with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation partners – to address food insecurity in Canada.”
While the Trudeau government has taken some steps to meet its commitments, it has not doing enough to address climate change impacts on food poverty and health outcomes in First Nations, as documented by this report, nor taken adequate steps to reach its mitigation targets and prevent potentially catastrophic impacts that climate change could bring in the coming years.
Obligation to Monitor Climate Impacts and Help Communities Adapt
Governments have an obligation to monitor and address harms that result from the impacts of climate change on the realization of the rights to food, health, and culture, and to support communities in adapting to climate change impacts in a non-discriminatory manner that will help prevent, and at a minimum mitigate to the fullest extent possible, deteriorating the level of enjoyment of these rights.
If governments fail to support First Nations’ adaptation efforts—including by addressing underlying causes of vulnerability such as systemic marginalization and underfunding—communities will continue to feel the impacts of climate change most harshly while having limited access to resources needed to address and adapt to climate-induced changes that exacerbate existing inequalities, and which are expected to become more acute in coming years.
Government policies and programs are failing to monitor and address climate impacts on First Nations food and culture, and federal and provincial governments have not provided the necessary resources to enable First Nations to carry out their own monitoring. Food subsidies and health resources urgently required to respond to current impacts are often not available, insufficient, or do not reach the people who need them most.
Insufficient Monitoring of Climate Impacts
In order to address climate change impacts and realize the rights to food and health in First Nations, governments should, as a basic step, have adequate assessment and monitoring programs in place to be able to identify impacts and understand the efficacy of measures taken to address these impacts. However, there remain significant gaps in federal and provincial government efforts to assess and monitor climate change impacts on the rights to food and health, or to consistently enable First Nations to do their own monitoring.
At the provincial and territorial level, a 2018 independent review by the Auditor General of Canada concluded that most governments “have not assessed and, therefore, do not fully understand what risks they face and what actions they should take to adapt to a changing climate.”
The release of the 2019 Canada’s Changing Climate Report—the “first in-depth, stand-alone assessment of how and why Canada’s climate has changed, and what changes are projected for the future”—marked a positive step toward a foundational climate assessment. However, the report does not discuss specific impacts on First Nations or their adaptation needs, and fails to address significant gaps in data on key climate warming impacts with particular significance for the realization of the rights to food and health in First Nations. For example, there is a lack of data on ice thickness or winter road duration in northern Ontario, in part due to reductions in government monitoring since the 1990s.
While some climate change studies are underway that may address some of these gaps, they are not a substitute for regular, sustained monitoring.
A lack of robust, regular collection of First Nations health data, including on food security, has already contributed to a lack of clarity on the extent of First Nations’ food insecurity. National-level surveys have commonly excluded on-reserve populations. Various First Nations-led surveys and studies have attempted to assess food security among Canada’s First Nations population in the absence of complete government data.
Currently, monitoring of climate change impacts on land and species, and related impacts on traditional food sources largely falls to First Nations. Few have the resources, or authority to divert funding to such monitoring, and so often must seek out additional funding to support these initiatives. Where funding is available, it is most often for limited, one-off projects, and not sustained programs. While First Nations with settled land claims, like the Vuntut Gwitchin, often have access to more predictable funding, capacity and adequate resources continue to be an issue.
The federal government, for example, made funding available to support Indigenous community-based climate monitoring, but only covered 2018-2019 and is no longer accepting applications from First Nations. In 2020, funding for 10 projects was also made available through the Indigenous Guardian Pilot Program to support First Nations’ efforts to monitor ecological health, maintain cultural sites, and protect sensitive areas and species, possibly including climate change impacts, but funding was limited to one year, 2020–2021.
The Ontario government, meanwhile, cut funding for climate impact monitoring intended to support First Nations in 2018, scrapping a Northern Ontario climate change impact study, and a project for 40 Indigenous communities to collect traditional knowledge, assess community vulnerabilities, and develop adaptation plans. While the province has committed to completing a provincial climate change impact assessment by 2022, it is not clear to what extent it will assess impacts on First Nations’ right to food, if at all.
Yukon, by contrast, launched a project with the Arctic Institute of Community Based Research in 2017, with financial support from the federal government, to explore the relationship between climate change, traditional foods, and local food production. Yukon has also committed to track data on climate-related illness (e.g. heat stroke, respiratory illness, and vector-borne diseases) and to “[r]egularly gather data on food insecurity to understand how many Yukoners are food insecure and why.”
In response to Human Rights Watch research the government of Yukon acknowledged that Yukon’s failure to actively monitor food security results in a critical data gap. While the government of Yukon, in a letter to Human Rights Watch, committed to “establishing a system for tracking food insecurity moving forward,” it is unclear when continuous monitoring will begin.
Yukon is also working on a climate change risk assessment for the territory to be released in 2021. All Yukon First Nations were invited to sit on a working group to inform the assessment. Building off of this assessment, the government of Yukon plans to assess climate hazards and vulnerabilities every three to four years between 2020 and 2030.
A 2018 climate change risk preparedness assessment by the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia noted that while a number of provincial ministries and partners run networks of monitoring stations to collect climate data (e.g. temperature, precipitation, snow depth), data gaps remain, particularly in the northern regions of the province. The government of British Columbia did not respond to questions about its climate or food security monitoring efforts.
Inadequate Adaptation Planning and Programming
Federal and provincial governments have not put in place adequate plans to address the rights implications of current and projected climate change on First Nations. With the exception of Yukon, most current adaptation planning and programming does not address distinct climate impacts on First Nations food poverty.
Complex Responsibilities for Management of Harvestable Resources
Responsibility for environmental regulation is shared between all levels of government in Canada. This shared jurisdiction for environmental regulation also applies on First Nations reserves. First Nations that have concluded a land claim, as many in the Yukon have, are also able to make laws concerning environmental protection on its settlement land, provided those laws “meet or beat” federal, provincial, or territorial standards. This jurisdictional overlap is further complicated by the fact that traditional food sources may cross international, provincial, and territorial borders, and pass between federal and provincial lands—known as “Crown lands.”
At the federal level, the 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (PCF) is the main policy instrument meant to guide efforts to help communities adapt to climate change. It commits to increased government support for Indigenous communities to undertake adaptation projects that protect public health, and further commits governments to “work[ing] in partnership with Indigenous communities to address climate change impacts.”
Since 2016, the federal government has taken steps to meet these commitments, allocating funds to a variety of programs that support First Nations adaptation projects. Some of this funding has gone toward projects related to food security. However, climate impacts exacerbate existing food poverty and current programs are not sufficient to address its impacts, as documented in this report. If funding for First Nations in the provinces from the Climate Change Health and Adaptation Program were allocated across all First Nations, for example, this would mean roughly CAD$14,000 in adaptation funding per community since 2016.
Indigenous Services Canada told Human Rights Watch, “[t]he Government of Canada recognizes that food security is a critical issue, one that significantly impacts the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities,” and acknowledged that “food security is linked to a variety of factors, including climate change.”
The federal government does not currently have a climate change adaptation strategy to effectively address climate impacts on existing Indigenous food poverty. Environment and Climate Change Canada and Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, told Human Rights Watch that federal efforts to develop a Northern Adaptation Strategy were abandoned in 2018 because “other initiatives came to replace this work,” including the Inuit-led development of a National Inuit Climate Change Strategy, the release of territorial government adaptation plans in Yukon and the Northwest Territories, and the First Nations-led development of a National First Nations Climate Change Strategy.
The federal government launched an Arctic and Northern Policy Framework in September 2019, intended “to address the economic, social, environmental, infrastructure, and climate change needs of northern communities.” While one of the framework’s eight priorities is to “face the effects of climate change and support healthy ecosystems in the Arctic and North,” the framework does not include First Nations across the provincial norths within its geographic scope.
Meanwhile, a 2018 independent review by the Auditor General of Canada found a broad lack of adequate adaptation planning and programming at all levels of government. Some governments had not developed detailed adaptation plans, and where plans were in place they commonly failed to include interim steps for reaching high-level commitments, timelines indicating when actions would be accomplished, or funding sources for planned actions.
Human Rights Watch examined the policies of British Columbia, Ontario, and Yukon and found that only one—Yukon—was taking its obligation to address climate change impacts on First Nations, including on their right to food, seriously.
The Yukon government is leading on efforts to address climate change impacts on First Nations food security and health in its adaptation planning. Its 2019 climate change plan, “Our Clean Future,” developed in collaboration with Yukon First Nations and trans-boundary Indigenous groups sets out specific measures, including natural disaster preparation, and monitoring and addressing climate change impacts on Yukon’s natural environment.
In response to Human Rights Watch research, the Government of Yukon acknowledged the importance of healthy traditional and store-bought foods for First Nations, and the potential for climate change to result in short term interruptions and longer-term impacts to these food sources.
The territory’s plan acknowledges the need to address food security as part of climate adaptation efforts by strengthening local harvesting and food production to decrease reliance on imported foods. It also commits to training for health and social service care providers to identify and respond to the physical and mental health impacts of climate change starting in 2023.
First Nations Land Use Plans and Climate Change Adaptation
Land use plans can also be an important means of mainstreaming climate change considerations into government decision-making. In Yukon, regional land use plans, mandated by First Nations land claims, address climate impacts on traditional food, and mainstream these impacts throughout government planning and natural resource development approval processes.
For example, the 2009 North Yukon Regional Land Use Plan addresses climate change as a major planning issue and affirms that sensitive wetland habitats and Porcupine Caribou Herd habitats at risk “should be managed more cautiously.” The 2019 Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan explicitly mainstreams climate impacts on First Nations traditional food by calling for increased protection of north-south unfragmented landscapes because of a need for species to be able to shift their ranges in response to climate change.
British Columbia’s current adaptation strategy, Preparing for Climate Change, released in 2010, refers to Indigenous peoples as “partners” of the provincial government, but does not discuss their role in adaptation planning, nor does it address how climate change is likely to impact food poverty. The government committed to developing a new provincial Adaptation Strategy by 2020, and has taken steps to collaboratively engage with First Nations in developing this strategy.
The absence of any concrete climate adaptation programs in British Columbia was felt by First Nations in the wake of the 2017/2018 wildfires, when timelines for the recovery of fire-damaged traditional food sources were uncertain, and a lack of programs to address these impacts left communities scrambling for resources to support recovery efforts. In response to First Nations’ requests for assistance, in May 2018, the provincial disaster recovery team suggested various longer-term food production options including gardening, fish hatcheries, and poultry farms for First Nations to consider, adding the caveat that “[i]t is the individual community’s responsibility to acquire its own funding sources.” In August 2018, BC First Nations issued a call for the federal and provincial governments to resource BC First Nations Communities to effectively respond to impacts of wildfires.
Since 2018, when Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative government came to power in Ontario, the province has cancelled a number of climate change programs, including a climate change monitoring program that would have benefitted First Nations. Rescinding funding for renewable energy projects also disproportionately impacted First Nations, as eight of the 10 canceled projects were backed by First Nations. Additionally, the Ontario government lessened environmental protections and cut funding for key environmental ministries, including for flood planning and response as well as emergency forest firefighting, despite projections of increased floods and fires as a result of climate change.
Meanwhile, the province’s 2018 Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan, which aims to prepare the province for the impacts of climate change, offers very limited guidance on adaptation in First Nations. In response to Human Rights Watch research, Ontario Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, Jeff Yurek, acknowledged that climate change “threatens food security and road access for remote First Nations” but offered no details on how the government of Ontario intends to address these impacts.
Nutrition North Canada Food Subsidy
In 2011, the federal government introduced Nutrition North Canada (NNC) to make perishable, nutritious food more affordable and more accessible for Northern remote communities. While NNC was not developed to address climate change impacts on First Nations’ right to food, it offers some support to communities where climate impacts are increasing the cost of already expensive imported food.
The program subsidizes eligible foods—such as fresh fruit, frozen vegetables, bread, meat, milk, and eggs—as well as some non-food items, sold by registered retailers and suppliers, and, in Old Crow, commercially processed traditional food.
Registered retailers are “responsible for passing on the full subsidy to consumers,” which is intended to promote “efficiency, cost-effectiveness and transparency.” The NNC is also available to individual customers in eligible communities through a direct order program, which allows customers to personally purchase subsidized food from registered southern retailers or suppliers.
In the fiscal year 2018–19, The North West Company received 51 percent of NCC subsidy funds (CAD$39.58 million), while its closest competitor, Arctic Co-operatives Limited received 17 percent (CAD$12.91 million). The company states that it passes on all of the subsidy savings to its customers. Nevertheless, the NNC subsidy program does not regulate retailers’ prices, leaving room for significant price variability between communities, stores, and provinces and territories.
While NNC has helped maintain food prices in remote and northern communities, it has not significantly reduced them. In response to Human Rights Watch research, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, said that from the launch of NNC in 2011 to March 2019, the cost of a nutritious diet has decreased by 1.03 percent in communities eligible for the subsidy, as compared to the south where prices increased by 10.5 percent during the same time period. Positively, the federal government invested CAD$25 million in NNC in 2020 to ensure access to nutritious food during Covid-19. According to Minister Vandal, this investment has resulted in more significant, if short-term food cost reductions.
Lack of Transparency and Accountability in Nutrition North Program
Historically, NNC has been criticized for lack of transparency about how retailers pass on the subsidy to communities, and the fact there is limited accountability to ensure retailers pass on the full subsidy. Recent reforms aimed to address this concern, but little progress has been made.
Since 2015, the federal government has added program requirements in their contracts with registered retailers and suppliers intended to increase transparency and accountability: first, requiring retailers to display individual subsidy savings on customers' receipts, and second, requiring retailers to submit data outlining profit margins and freight costs to facilitate third-party audits.
The federal government does not make individual retailer’s profit margins publicly available. Only the federally-commissioned independent compliance reviews, conducted annually for a sample of registered retailers and suppliers, provide a mechanism for ensuring that the full benefit of the subsidy is passed from retailers to consumers in northern and remote communities. The federal government has not published any compliance reports since 2015-2016, and has only published audits for a handful of retailers from 2011-2016. In response to Human Right Watch research, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal committed to publishing the compliance reports for audits conducted since 2016 on the Nutrition North Canada website in the fall of 2020.
The federal government has few means of ensuring retailer compliance and lacks effective grievance mechanisms for communities. Where a retailer is in noncompliance, for example by failing to pass on the full subsidy, the federal government can make public recommendations on needed reforms, but retailers face no repercussions, barring the termination of funding agreements with continually non-compliant retailers, an option that would severely impact community members. Community members themselves are encouraged to directly contact their local retailer if they have concerns about food costs, even if that entity is the source of their concerns.
In August 2019, the federal government announced that a Northern-based compliance and audit review committee would be established in the coming months to improve transparency and accountability by providing Northern representatives and firms the opportunity to participate in the review of the audit reports. According to the Minister of Northern Affairs, the federal government is currently “canvassing Indigenous partners for feedback and recommendations on Committee membership and objectives,” though Covid-19 has hampered this process.
Following continued criticism, the federal government launched an “engagement” process in 2016 to improve the program. The engagement’s final report found that Northerners were worried about the overall quality and availability of nutritious perishable food, adding that “NNC was not having a big enough effect on the price of food.” Engagement participants also expressed “significant concern regarding how climate change will impact food availability” and asked for support for traditional food, including by subsidizing harvesting costs including snowmobiles, ammunition, and fuel.
In January 2019, the government of Canada began implementing changes to NNC intended to increase access to nutritious food and traditional food, including a revised subsidized foods list, a new highest-level subsidy rate specifically for milk, frozen fruit, frozen vegetables, infant formula, and infant food; and an increase to the two existing subsidy rates to help further lower the cost of perishable, nutritious food. The reform also promised more flexibility for paying for personal orders and a harvesters’ support grant program to help offset the costs of traditional harvesting.
Payment flexibility has increased at most registered southern retailers to now include debit, cheques, or electronic funds transfers, and a few locations accept cash. However, lack of access to a credit card remains a barrier for some First Nations people, although the number of people impacted is unknown.
As of April 2020, the promised harvesters’ support grant has been made available to most NNC-eligible communities, with funding available for up to five years.
In response to Human Rights Watch research, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) acknowledged that there are gaps in government programming to support First Nations’ access to food, and noted that the harvesters support program was designed to fill some of these gaps. “While the [NNC] program was established to improve affordability and accessibility of nutritious foods… it was not designed to address the full range of complex issues leading to food insecurity,” Minister Vandal told Human Rights Watch. Minister Vandal added that the introduction of the harvesters support grant, currently funded at CAD$8 million per year, stems from a recognition that “improving access to food locally is central to food security."
In order to more fully address food poverty in remote and northern First Nations, CIRNAC should monitor the impacts of recent reforms to better understand how they contribute to food poverty reduction efforts, including ensuring the subsidy is fully passed on to communities. As climate change impacts increase, it is likely that further NNC reforms, including to the harvesters support program, will be needed to account for increased transport and harvesting costs. First Nations need to be full and active partners in developing such measures.
With regard to climate change impacts on food poverty, the Minister of Northern Affairs acknowledged that climate change may require Nutrition North to expand its support as communities lose access to year-round surface transportation entirely or face extended periods of isolation as a result of climate change impacts, for example on winter roads.
Other Food Policies and Programs
The federal government unveiled the country’s first national food policy in 2019, which aims to increase access and affordability of healthy food, promote local food, support Indigenous peoples, reduce food waste, and create a more sustainable food system. One of the four key action areas is supporting food security in Northern and Indigenous communities, including through recognizing the unique rights, interest, and circumstances of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, and respecting Indigenous knowledge.
However, the policy does not identify specific steps to address First Nations food needs, both in general and related to the impacts of climate change on traditional food. Furthermore, the policy does not recognize the right to food, nor mandate food security data collection in the provinces and territories, or address the ways in which climate impacts should guide food policy including with respect to disproportionate impacts on women, children, and older people.
In 2019, as part of the implementation of the food policy, the federal government created a five-year, CAD$50 million Local Food Infrastructure Fund for community-based and not-for-profit organizations “to strengthen food systems and to facilitate access to safe and nutritious food for at-risk populations.” Although Indigenous organizations are eligible to apply, the fund is targeted broadly at not-for-profit organizations, and it is not clear what percentage of the fund has been allocated to projects supporting food infrastructure, such as community gardens and community freezers, in First Nations.
Few provincial or territorial instruments exist to complement or fill the gaps of the federal food policy. In addressing First Nations food poverty, Ontario, British Columbia, and Yukon currently rely on a patchwork of programs and initiatives that they support or run, such as school lunch programs, farmers’ market coupons, food skills workshops, programs for Indigenous youth, and campaigns and programs encouraging growth and consumption of local food.
Some of these programs offer positive steps toward supporting access to food for low-income and marginalized groups, including Indigenous people. However, they do not address climate change-related loss of traditional food sources and the increasing costs of transporting purchased food to remote Indigenous communities. Further, most existing food security programs in Canada fail to account for the importance of supporting access to culturally appropriate food and thereby fail to consider the particular and disparate impacts climate change has on First Nations’ right to food.
Positively, in British Columbia, where the federal government has transferred health care authority for First Nations to the First Nations Health Authority, the First Nations-led “Aboriginal Head Start on Reserve” program supports nutrition awareness in communities as well as access to traditional food by providing children with opportunities to participate in traditional harvesting activities.
However, as Norma Kassi, co-founder and Director of Indigenous Collaboration at the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research, has emphasized, while provinces and territories are “working on food security issues to various extents,” the lack of coordination between different levels of government means that food security is not addressed in a comprehensive way.
Isolated and piecemeal provincial and territorial programs are inadequate to address the full scope and many root causes of First Nations food poverty, much less the foreseeable consequences of continued global warming on First Nations food systems. A successful strategy to address First Nations food poverty requires coordinated action within and across all levels of government, in consultation with impacted communities.
Obligation to Drastically Cut Emissions to Prevent Foreseeable Harms
States have a human rights obligation to address climate change, including by implementing robust and rights-respecting climate mitigation policies that are consistent with the best available science, thereby preventing the deterioration of the protection of rights of marginalized populations.
In Canada, climate change is already putting the health, wellbeing, and survival of Indigenous peoples, including First Nations, at risk. In 2016, Canada signed and ratified the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. Yet, the government is not doing enough to keep warming below 1.5°C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Canada as a Major Greenhouse Gas Emitter
Despite its relatively small population of around 37.8 million people, Canada is still a top 10 contributor to global GHG emissions. With per capita emissions three to four times the global average, Canada has one of the highest per capita emissions in the world, and is among the most carbon-intensive members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Canada’s cumulative emissions are much higher than in other countries with high emissions today. For example, while countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait have climbed extraordinarily through the ranks of annual GHG emissions, Canada is still among the top 10 cumulative emitters. On a per capita basis, Canada moves even higher up the list of top emitters.
Between 1990 and 2017, Canada’s emissions increased by 18.9 percent (114 megatonnes), driven mainly by mining and oil and gas production. Meanwhile, a 15 megatonne increase in emissions from 2017 to 2018, has nearly erased Canada’s minimal progress in emissions reductions since 2005.
Canada is projected to emit 673 megatonnes in 2030, 162 megatonnes more than its Paris Agreement commitment (511 megatonnes). Even if additional measures announced but not yet implemented are taken into account, Canada is still set to emit 603 megatonnes by 2030.
Canada’s economy is dependent on natural resource development—often on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. Canada is the fourth largest producer and fourth largest exporter of oil in the world, and 96 percent of Canada’s proven oil reserves are located in the carbon-intensive Alberta oil sands.
A series of controversial resource development projects have pitted the Canadian government’s climate change commitments against the realities of a resource-dependent economy. Most recently, on February 23, 2020, Teck Resources Ltd. withdrew its application to develop a massive oil sands project in northern Alberta, days before the federal government was expected to issue its decision on whether to approve the 260,000-barrel-per-day project. Explaining this decision, Teck’s CEO pointed to the Canadian government’s need to find a way to reconcile climate change considerations with resource development.
The year before, in 2019, one day after the House of Commons declared a climate emergency, the Canadian government approved the expansion of a pipeline project that will significantly increase the country’s oil production. Announcing the government’s decision, Prime Minister Trudeau outlined the need to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection, and pledged to invest profits from the government-owned pipeline in clean energy development.
Thus far, Canada has favoured short-term economic interests over meeting emissions targets. In particular, federal and provincial governments support fossil fuel producers through subsidies and direct investment in fossil fuel infrastructure. Federal financial support for fossil fuel producers alone increased to nearly CAD$600 million from 2018 to 2019. As of 2018, Canada was the second largest public financer of fossil fuels among G20 countries, supporting oil and gas to the tune of CAD$13.9 billion a year. Federal, provincial, and territorial governments have further entrenched support for fossil fuels in their Covid-19 responses, providing fossil fuel producers more than CAD$16 billion in aid, compared to around CAD$8 billion for clean energy.
The province of Alberta, meanwhile, has invested CAD$1.1 billion in the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would connect the province’s oil sands with American refineries.
The debate over resource development has also divided First Nations. For many remote communities, resource extraction offers one of the only sources of income and employment, an attractive proposition for communities dealing with decades of systematic underfunding and socio-economic marginalization. For others, the risks posed by resource development projects are too great. Beaver Lake Cree Nation, for example, has taken the Alberta and Canadian governments to court over the cumulative impacts of the oil sands on traditional harvesting.
Not on Track to Meet Weak Targets
As a party to the Paris Agreement, Canada has to submit a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), a country’s domestic climate change action plan. Canada’s NDC, set in 2015 under the previous administration, pledges to reduce GHG emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and to phase out coal use, improve energy efficiency, protect carbon sinks, and support Indigenous peoples, among other goals.
Canada’s GHG emissions reductions target is one of the weakest and insufficient to contribute to meeting global goals. Only nine out of 36 OECD countries have targets on par with or less ambitious than Canada’s. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent think tank tracking government climate action, classifies Canada’s commitments as “insufficient,” as Canada’s NDC is “not consistent with holding warming below 2°C let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger 1.5°C limit.” If all government targets were in this range, warming would reach over 2°C and up to 3°C. The OECD similarly concluded in 2017 that Canada must drastically reduce emissions between 2030 and 2050 to remain consistent with keeping warming below 2°C.
Canada has thus far not stated its intention to enhance its commitments for the next NDC, due in 2020, which would cover 2021 through 2025.
Despite modest emissions reduction targets, Canada is not on track to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. In 2018, the Canadian Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development and Canada’s Auditors General found that the federal and most sub-national governments are not on track to meet their own emission reduction targets. With 2018 emissions only cut by 0.1 percent since 2005, Canada is essentially back at square one in its efforts to meet its commitment to cut emissions to 30 percent of what they were in 2005 by 2030.
In response to Human Rights Watch research, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) acknowledged that “more work is needed” to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and thereby limit warming to 1.5°C. Nevertheless, ECCC emphasized that emission reductions have been made since the adoption of the Pan-Canadian Framework in 2016 and claimed, “Canada’s climate plan puts the country on the path” toward meeting the government’s reduction targets. ECCC did not provide any details on how these targets will be achieved.
In June 2019, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report assessing the effectiveness of one central component of the federal government’s climate policy – a carbon pricing mechanism for reducing emissions. It concluded that the current carbon price is insufficient to meet Canada’s NDC targets, contributing to the country’s failure to reach the 2030 goal (513 megatonnes) by 79 megatonnes. The report recommended that Parliament imposed an additional carbon price in 2023 that would increase until 2030. Catherine McKenna, then Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, responded by saying the government had no intention of increasing the carbon price beyond the 2022 increase already planned. While the government referenced other measures announced in June 2019, including tackling plastic pollution, planting more trees, and investing in clean technology, it did not announce a clear plan on how to close the emissions reduction gap.
Provincial and territorial governments have also fallen short in their efforts to help meet Canada’s mitigation targets. Experts have critiqued Ontario’s environment plan, released in November 2018, for setting insufficient emissions reduction targets, inconsistent with keeping warming below 1.5°C; costing taxpayers twice as much as the federal carbon price, while having no rebates or incentives for low-income people; being insufficiently funded; and vague on timelines, plans, and accountability. This plan was released the same year the provincial government spent CAD$700 million to expand natural gas, fund tax exemptions for aviation and rail, and support tax cuts for colored fuel use in agriculture. Ontario, meanwhile, is not on track to meet emissions reduction targets after cuts to programs intended to mitigate emissions contributed to a spike in the province’s 2018 emissions.
While British Columbia’s 2018 plan, CleanBC, is a positive step for its overall emission reduction targets, environmental and policy groups consider that the plan’s measures are insufficient to meet those targets. As of 2018, the most recent year for which emissions data is available, British Columbia has made no progress in reducing emissions from 2007 levels, and instead has seen a six percent increase in emissions since 2007. In late October 2019, British Columbia announced amendments to existing laws that will increase accountability through an independent oversight body and detailed tracking of carbon reduction efforts, as well as sector-specific emission reductions targets to help better assess progress and meet overall goals. Regardless of the impact of existing mitigation measures, a 2020 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that British Columbia will exceed its 2050 climate target by at least 227 percent if all proposed LNG projects go ahead. The BC government also provides substantial financial support to the oil and gas sector in the province, including by establishing new subsidies and increased access to existing ones for the liquefied natural gas sector.
Yukon’s “Our Clean Future” climate plan commits to reducing GHG emissions by 30 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. The territory plans to meet this target through increased renewable energy generation, using “cleaner fuels” for heavy transport, and offering mitigation incentives such as rebates for zero-emission vehicles and low-interest financing for housing retrofits. The territory has also committed to working with industry to develop intensity-based emissions targets for mining—targets based on the amount of emissions generated per unit of production. These targets, which will not be in place until 2022, leave scope for mines to increase production, and therefore emissions, as long as emissions per unit of production does not increase. The Yukon government told Human Rights Watch that its recent commitment to reaching net-zero by 2050 “addresses concerns that Yukon’s total emissions could rise in the short-term under the intensity-based approach to mining.” The measures outlined in Our Clean Future will only result in three-quarters of the targeted emissions reduction, a gap, the government said it will address in 2024 through updated actions based on the territory’s progress and new information that emerges. It is unclear how the Yukon government will manage to address this gap, and by how much mining emissions will develop under the proposed intensity-based regulation. Yukon’s GHG emissions have increased by 11.8 percent between 2009 and 2017, and have only decreased by 1 percent since 1990. Positively, in 2020, the government of Yukon committed to create a Clean Energy Act by 2023 that legislates their greenhouse gas reduction targets.
There is growing consensus that carbon pricing is an efficient way to mitigate climate change and an essential aspect—though insufficient on its own—of the fight against climate change. Carbon pricing policies typically increase the cost of fossil fuels, among other carbon-intensive commodities, thereby encouraging people to buy products that are less harmful to the climate.
Carbon prices can be used to make polluters pay for the negative consequence they impose on others, either through a tax or emission caps combined with a trading system. However, the current framework in Canada will ultimately do more harm than good for First Nations because it does not account for the disproportionate impact of carbon pricing on remote, Indigenous communities.
In 2016, the PCF introduced carbon pricing to mitigate climate change on a national level. The federal carbon pricing scheme began in 2019 and currently, fully or partially, applies to Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba (involuntarily), and Yukon and Nunavut (voluntarily). British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Northwest Territories have all devised their own plans for pricing carbon emissions that were deemed sufficiently stringent under the federal legislation. Since 2008, British Columbia has had a carbon tax, while other provinces, including Quebec and Ontario, were the first to introduce cap-and-trade systems, though Ontario later scrapped theirs. At time of writing, four provinces (Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba) formally oppose the implementation of a carbon price.
While carbon pricing is central to Canada’s mitigation efforts, the current framework does not account for the disproportionate impact of increased carbon costs on Indigenous peoples. Carbon pricing increases the cost of most consumer goods, and unless mitigating efforts are taken, can have a greater impact on lower-income and marginalized populations who typically spend a high percentage of their income on carbon-intensive goods. Indigenous households across Canada have lower average incomes than non-Indigenous households.
Additionally, increasing the price of fuel has broader impacts on northern and remote First Nations, increasing living costs, including food prices. A federal study of the potential impact of carbon pricing on households in Yukon found that Old Crow households faced the greatest total direct and indirect pricing increases compared to rural and Whitehorse households.
In general, fuel cost increases typically affect populations more in rural or remote locations where public transport is not readily available. Further, securing adequate food—whether from the land or from the store—also comes at a high fuel cost due to fuel costs for transport. Remote and northern Indigenous communities in Canada face additional fuel burdens as they are often cut off from the national energy grid and dependent on diesel to produce electricity and heat homes, with poor housing quality further increasing the fuel needed to heat homes. Positively, the federal government committed CAD$20 million in 2019 to support some remote Indigenous communities in moving off diesel, often the only source of electricity. The Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities program running from 2018-2024, which similarly provides CAD$220 million to support for communities transitioning off diesel, received over 400 applications requesting more than CAD$1 billion and is fully allocated supporting 88 projects in 131 communities, of which 123 are Indigenous communities.
Acknowledging that carbon pricing disproportionately impacts certain groups, the federal government has exempted some from all or part of the fuel charge, including farmers and fishers. While farmers and fishers need not be registered to benefit from the exemption, farmers and fishers are defined as persons who carry on a farming or fishing business “with a reasonable expectation of profit.” First Nations who harvest in order to provide food for themselves and their family or community would not meet this definition unless also engaged in commercial sale of traditional food, an undertaking that is restricted by food safety regulations. There is currently no similar exemption for Indigenous harvesters.
Positively, the federal government acknowledged the high-reliance of the territories on air transportation by exempting aviation fuel from carbon pricing. This exemption, however, only applies in the territories and not in the provincial norths, where communities are equally reliant on air transport for basic goods. The federal government has also exempted remote power plant operators where fuel is used exclusively to generate electricity.
Many First Nations members are also unlikely to benefit from carbon pricing proceeds under the current framework. To mitigate any regressive impact of the tax, Canada has implemented the Climate Action Incentive, which functions like a tax rebate. Payments to individuals are delivered through federal tax returns, and the government indicated that most people should receive more in rebates than they pay as a result of the fuel charge. The federal government further offers a 10 percent increase to the baseline rebate for residents of rural and small communities, in recognition of their increased energy needs and reduced access to alternative transports.
However, to receive the rebate, individuals must file a federal tax return, a method the federal government has acknowledged is ineffective for First Nations given legislated tax exemptions that mean many First Nations people on-reserve do not file federal tax returns. Estimates suggest that at least 30 to 40 percent of eligible families on-reserve do not file tax returns and thus do not receive the tax rebate.
A 2017 report prepared for the Canada Revenue Agency, found that awareness of available tax credits and benefits was “relatively limited” on-reserve and identified barriers to filing such as the cost of filing; limited financial literacy; limited computer or Internet access; lack of access to filing assistance in community; and difficulty assembling the required documents.
First Nations people on-reserve who do not file do not receive the rebate, and thus face the negative impacts of climate change, including a decline of traditional food sources, while also shouldering higher expenses due to carbon pricing.
The Canadian government has expanded two federal programs that aim to increase tax filing in First Nations and could, in the long term, help address this issue. However, neither program is specific to the carbon tax and the federal government has failed to respond to concerns from First Nations about the rebate.
In the September 2020 Speech from the Throne, the federal government committed to “work to introduce free, automatic tax filing for simple returns to ensure citizens receive the benefits they need.” This initiative could be a positive way to ensure that many infrequent filers receive much needed tax benefits, however it is not clear whether individuals who have never filed would be able to benefit, as the Canadian Revenue Agency may not have enough data to compile their paperwork.
Regardless, the rebate may not be enough to counteract its impacts on First Nations people’s right to food. While the rebate increases annually as the carbon price increases, the amount is based on household size (as opposed to income), and so awards the same rebate to both high and low-income households. The rebate also does not account for the carbon tax’s disproportionate impacts on remote First Nations where costs of transport, harvesting, and importing essential supplies are already high and likely to increase as fuel costs increase.
British Columbia, by contrast, has implemented a carbon tax rebate that is based on both income and household members, therefore combatting any regressive impact of the tax.
So far, Indigenous peoples have benefitted very little from the distribution of carbon pricing revenue. Currently, 10 percent of the carbon pricing proceeds are allocated to support climate change and energy cost reduction projects. Around 40 percent (CAD$153.46 million) of this amount is allocated to supporting small- and medium-sized businesses to undertake retrofit projects, just over 17 percent (CAD$67.9 million) has been allocated to a fund for municipalities, universities, schools, and hospitals to undertake energy efficiency projects, and less than two percent (CAD$7.3 million) has been allocated to support to First Nations and Métis Communities. The government promised additional details on a carbon tax relief program for Indigenous peoples to be outlined in early 2019, but this program has yet to be developed.
Since before the PCF’s introduction, First Nations have called on the government to work with First Nations so as to “ensure equity in the allocation of these funds.” While distributing revenues to individuals will help move towards a progressive scheme, it is insufficient to mitigate the disproportionate impacts on First Nations.
Governments should consider improving housing in remote communities, and direct payments as opposed to carbon tax rebates for on-reserve populations who often do not file income tax returns. Where carbon tax rebates are used, they should be targeted at individuals as opposed to households, and be administratively accessible.
III. Canada’s Domestic and International Human Rights Obligations
Through numerous human rights instruments, Canada is obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill a number of rights related to the food needs of Indigenous peoples in Canada, including the rights to food, health, culture, and a healthy environment in a non-discriminatory manner. This includes the obligation not to take retrogressive measures, i.e. measure which will diminish the protection of their rights.
In the context of climate change, Canada has specific obligations with respect to these rights. In 2018, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the body of independent experts that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, warned states that “a failure to prevent foreseeable human rights harm caused by climate change, or a failure to mobilize the maximum available resources in an effort to do so, could constitute a breach” of their human rights obligations. The Committee reminded governments that their human rights obligations under the ICESCR should guide them in the design and implementation of measures to address climate change. Other UN human rights treaty bodies have also recognized states’ affirmative obligation to take effective measures to prevent and redress climate change impacts.
For example, the UN Human Rights Committee, in its legal guidance on the right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has warned governments that “[i]mplementation of the obligation to respect and ensure the right to life, and in particular life with dignity, depends, inter alia, on measures taken by States parties to preserve the environment and protect it against harm, pollution and climate change caused by public and private actors. In February 2018, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women adopted General Recommendation No. 37 on “Gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change,” which addresses examples of the disproportionate impacts of disasters on women and identifies many of the key climate change issues that governments should consider when implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The Committee on the Rights of the Child in its General comment No. 15 (2013) on the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, identified climate change as “one of the biggest threats to children’s health and exacerbates health disparities.”
Canada has also adopted the Paris Agreement, stating in its preamble that “[p]arties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, [and] the rights of indigenous peoples.” The Agreement also recognizes that adaptation action should be guiding by knowledge of indigenous peoples. Parties to the Paris Agreement have also established the Local Communities and Indigenous Platform that is developing further guidance to governments on how to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights when implementing the Agreement.
Right to Food
The right to food is a right in and of itself, and a component part of the right to an adequate standard of living. Canada is subject to a number of international treaty obligations to ensure the right to food for specific groups, including children, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people with disabilities.
CESCR has said that the right to food is “realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” The right has four main components: availability, accessibility, adequacy, and sustainability, which require that food be available “in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture,” and that it be accessible “in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has used this guidance to articulate the right to food as “the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchase, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”
States’ obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are subject to progressive realization, however there are also minimum core obligations, which governments are obliged to fulfill immediately. For example, the obligation of non-discrimination means that states must not discriminate in access to food as well as to means and entitlements for its procurement, on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, age, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
States are generally prohibited from taking retrogressive measures, i.e. deliberate measures which result in the deterioration of current level of protection of the right to food.
When governments fail to address a decline in rights standards attributable to their policy choices, such inaction is likely to give rise to a violation of their obligations. Not maintaining records in order to monitor trends, when it already has demonstrated it has the capacity and resources to do so, or failing to do so transparently, is one way that a government can fall short of its international rights obligations.
In relation to climate change, the 2015 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food recommended that “Policy coherence at the international level be ensured by fostering cooperation between the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and other international treaties relevant to climate change and food security, while providing a human rights approach in the entire agenda to promote climate justice and the right to food.”
Canada has also signed the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 1996 Rome Declaration, which specifically sets food security as an objective, adding: “governments, in partnership with all actors of civil society, as appropriate, will: (a) Develop and periodically update, where necessary, a national food insecurity and vulnerability information and mapping system, indicating areas and populations, including at local level, affected by or at-risk of hunger and malnutrition, and elements contributing to food insecurity...”
Subsequent voluntary guidelines issued by the FAO set out further specifics on mapping food insecurity for specific vulnerable populations and establishing “food safety nets to protect those who are unable to provide for themselves” and articulates all the guidelines explicitly under the “right to adequate food.”
Right to Health
The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health is enshrined in numerous international treaties binding Canada, including the ICESCR and the CRC. Fulfillment of the right to health requires a holistic approach, as the right to health is “an inclusive right extending not only to timely and appropriate health care but also to the underlying determinants of health, such as access to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation, an adequate supply of safe food, nutrition and housing, healthy occupational and environmental conditions, and access to health-related education and information.”
States have an obligation to ensure that health facilities, goods, and services are available and accessible to everyone without discrimination, and are culturally appropriate. The CESCR has stated that a “violation of the obligation to fulfill” the right to health can occur when there is “insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources which results in the non-enjoyment of the right to health by individuals or groups.”
In respect of Indigenous communities, human rights standards further recognize that health has a collective dimension, encompassing ties to culture, community, and the land. As a result, fulfilment of the right to health for Indigenous peoples requires not only provision of culturally appropriate health services, but also protection of traditional sources of nutrition and medicine, as well as protection of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their lands and sources of nutrition.
The right to health of Indigenous peoples is also inextricably linked to self-determination, requiring that states provide “resources for [I]ndigenous peoples to design, deliver and control” their own health services.
The right to health also requires action to prevent, to the greatest extent possible, the foreseeable negative impacts of climate change. Failing to take affirmative measures, in the form of mitigation and adaptation, to protect those most at risk of negative health impacts from climate change, such as Indigenous peoples, would constitute a breach of a state’s human rights obligations.
Right to Culture
Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions. This right encompasses broad protection for Indigenous peoples’ traditional lands and resources. The CESCR explained:
The strong communal dimension of [I]ndigenous peoples’ cultural life is indispensable to their existence, well‑being and full development, and includes the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired. Indigenous peoples’ cultural values and rights associated with their ancestral lands and their relationship with nature should be regarded with respect and protected, in order to prevent the degradation of their particular way of life, including their means of subsistence, the loss of their natural resources and, ultimately, their cultural identity. States parties must therefore take measures to recognize and protect the rights of indigenous peoples to own, develop, control and use their communal lands, territories and resources, and, where they have been otherwise inhabited or used without their free and informed consent, take steps to return these lands and territories.
Indigenous peoples have the right “to act collectively to ensure respect for their right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage,” including their Indigenous knowledge.
States are obligated to respect and protect Indigenous cultural heritage “in economic development and environmental policies and programmes.” States are also obligated to respect and protect Indigenous “cultural productions,” such as Indigenous knowledge and “natural medicines,” including protection from illegal or unjust exploitation of their lands, territories and resources by State entities or private or transnational enterprises and corporations.
Right to a Healthy Environment
A safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of a range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water, and culture. It is also a right in and of itself, recognized in several regional human rights instruments and many national constitutions. The Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment has identified the substantive elements of this right to include a safe climate, clean air, clean water and adequate sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems. Regarding climate change, states have obligations to protect human rights from environmental harm including through emissions reduction.
To the Government of Canada
- Set and implement ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals in line with the best available science, taking into account obligation not to further increase food poverty, in particular for those populations most affected, such as Indigenous peoples.
- Set an ambitious new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) that aligns emissions reduction targets with the imperative to keep the increase of global average temperature no higher than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and which explicitly references the rights of Indigenous peoples in line with the preamble of the Paris Agreement. The impact of Covid-19 should not be used as a pretext to unreasonably delay fulfilling obligations under the Paris Agreement, such as the timely submission of the new NDC.
- Ensure that Covid-19 stimulus packages support a just transition towards renewable energy, including prioritizing First Nations.
- In line with the obligation to prevent foreseeable harms from climate change, refrain from entrenching fossil fuel dependence and promoting further fossil fuel development through the use of tax exemptions, subsidies, and other forms of financial support for fossil fuel companies.
- Ensure meaningful participation of, and partnership with, First Nations, including women, youth, and older people, in the design and implementation of Canada’s climate change policies and ensure that any action to address climate change is in-line with human rights obligations, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In particular, ensure that climate change policies protect marginalized populations, including Indigenous peoples, older people, women, children, and people with chronic diseases, already most impacted by climate change.
- Enable meaningful participation of First Nations in the federal carbon pollution pricing system.
- Publicly acknowledge the right to food as a basic human right, and part of the human right to an adequate standard of living, and accept the duty to ensure that nobody in Canada has to go hungry.
- Support Indigenous-led food security initiatives such as community freezers and community garden projects.
- Recognize that Indigenous knowledge systems about climatic conditions and their impacts on traditional food sources are relevant to the realization of the right to food.
- Co-develop with First Nations long-term, sufficient, predictable, and sustainable funding programs to respond to climate change impacts on infrastructure (including winter roads), food supply, and health.
To Environment and Climate Change Canada
- Ensure the meaningful participation of and partnership with First Nations in the design and implementation of Canada’s climate change policies, including the 2020 NDCs and Covid-19 stimulus packages.
- Revise Canada’s 2030 target to bring emissions reductions in line with what the IPCC says is necessary to prevent a global temperature rise above 1.5 degrees and to meet Canada’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
- 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 and that revenue sharing benefits First Nations.
- Ensure the meaningful participation of and partnership with First Nations in the design and implementation of Canada’s climate change adaptation policies, including by:
- Ensuring consistent and long-term funding and support for Indigenous-led programs to monitor climate change impacts on the realization of the rights to food and health, in line with human rights obligations and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including through the expansion of the Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program.
- Creating a comprehensive framework of Indigenous-led adaptation policies and programs to address impacts of climate change on Indigenous food poverty and health.
To Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada
- Monitor the efficacy of the Nutrition North Canada subsidy, including impacts of the 2018 reforms, and revise the program to ensure that:
- Those most in need can access the subsidies and will be able to afford healthy and nutritious food in community stores or by ordering from the nearest major city.
- Specific impacts of climate change on food poverty in eligible First Nations are assessed and considered in determination of subsidies.
- Consider expanding the Nutrition North subsidy program eligibility criteria to support food banks in remote and northern communities.
- Ensure that the promised Northern-based compliance and audit review committee is developed in meaningful partnership with northern Indigenous communities and addresses outstanding concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability regarding how retailers and suppliers pass on the NNC subsidy to consumers.
- Work with Environment and Climate Change Canada to fund and support comprehensive Indigenous-led monitoring of climate change impacts on the realization of the rights to food and health.
- Collaborate with Environment and Climate Change Canada to create a comprehensive framework of Indigenous-led adaptation policies and programs to address impacts of climate change on Indigenous food poverty and mental health.
- Work with Environment and Climate Change Canada to fund and support comprehensive (and self-determined) Indigenous climate solutions, including those that relate to upholding their rights to food, water, and health.
- Respect Indigenous peoples’ decision-making authority over their traditional territories and harvesting resources through appropriate measures, for example: co-management of natural resources; increased protection of areas having high importance for cultural and harvesting purposes, at the direction of, and under the leadership of Indigenous peoples; and the timely resolution of comprehensive and specific land claims.
To Health Canada
- Collaborate with Environment and Climate Change Canada to develop a plan for Indigenous-led monitoring of climate change impacts on the rights to food and health and to create a comprehensive framework of Indigenous-led adaptation policies and programs to address impacts of climate change on Indigenous food poverty and mental health.
- Improve access to mental health care and psychosocial support on the basis of free and informed consent in First Nations, including by allocating targeted funding for community-based services, filling any healthcare worker vacancies in First Nations, and training Indigenous community members as counselors.
- In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, establish a national school food program to provide healthy food in all public schools, with a particular focus on ensuring that First Nations children have prompt access to the program and are provided with traditional or other culturally appropriate food.
- Promote programs serving traditional or other culturally sensitive food at hospitals and other institutions.
To Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
- Implement the Food Policy to address the impacts of climate change on Indigenous food poverty. In collaboration with First Nations and other relevant ministries, develop a plan for monitoring climate change impacts on rights to food and health.
To Provincial and Territorial Governments
- Ensure the meaningful participation of First Nations in the design and implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation policies.
- In collaboration with First Nations, develop a plan for monitoring climate change impacts on rights to food, health, and culture. Give independent provincial or territorial human rights bodies a mandate to oversee monitoring and ensure transparency and accountability.
- Working with the federal government, provide financial and technical support to First Nations to be able to respond to climate change impacts on infrastructure (including winter roads), food supply, and health.
- In line with the obligation to prevent foreseeable harms from climate change, refrain from using tax exemptions, subsidies, and other forms of financial incentives to support fossil fuel development.
To the Government of the Yukon
- Work to rapidly implement robust, regular monitoring of food insecurity impacted by climate change, including in First Nations, as committed to in the Our Clean Future plan.
To the Government of Ontario
- In line with previous efforts to build climate change monitoring capacity in First Nations, and in collaboration with First Nations, develop a plan for monitoring climate change impacts on rights to food, health, and culture and ensure its implementation.
To the British Columbia Government
- Revise the provincial carbon tax system so that First Nations on-reserve can quickly and easily access the equivalent of the Climate Action Tax Credit. Ensure that revenue sharing from the carbon tax benefits Indigenous communities, for example by protecting biodiverse carbon stores, supporting Indigenous agriculture programs, or funding Indigenous energy efficiency programs.
- Ensure that the 2020 provincial Adaptation Strategy includes Indigenous-led monitoring of climate change impacts on the rights to food and health and provide technical support enabling First Nations to develop adaptation policies.
This report was researched and written by Katharina Rall, senior researcher in the Environment and Human Rights division of Human Rights Watch, and Rachel LaFortune, researcher in the Environment and Human Rights division. Luciana Tellez-Chavez, researcher in the Environment and Human Rights division, and Farida Deif, Canada director, participated in the field research. Christie McLeod and Isaac Gazendam, interns in the Environment and Human Rights division, provided research assistance.
The report was edited by Amanda Klasing, acting director of the Women’s Rights division who also conducted additional field research; Daniel Wilkinson, acting director, Environment and Human Rights division; and Felix Horne, senior researcher in the Environment and Human Rights division. It was reviewed by Deif; Juliane Kippenberg, associate director in the Children’s Rights Division; Emina Ćerimović, senior researcher in the Disability Rights Division; Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, researcher in the Women’s Rights Division; Bethany Brown, former researcher on the rights of older people; Komala Ramachandra and Lena Simet, senior researchers in the Business and Human Rights Division; Jim Wormington, senior researcher in the Africa Division; and Megan McLemore, health consultant. Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director, and Aisling Reidy, senior legal adviser provided programmatic and legal reviews respectively.
The report was prepared for publication by Travis Carr, publications coordinator; Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager; and José Martínez, senior administration coordinator at Human Rights Watch. Environment division coordinator Cara Schulte provided editing and production support.
Human Rights Watch would like to thank many First Nations communities, organizations, activists, and academics who shared their insights with us or provided other forms of assistance. In particular, Human Rights Watch would like to thank Sam Hunter, Natural Resources Monitor in Peawanuck; Gerald Wheesk, former environmental steward in Attawapiskat; Vern Cheechoo, Director of Lands and Resources at Mushkegowuk Council; Kirby Muldoe, Indigenous Engagement for Skeena Wild.; Lorraine Netro, member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow; Megan Williams, Heritage Manager of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation; Heritage Committee of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation; Amanda Carling, manager of Indigenous Initiatives at the University of Toronto; Tonio Sadik and Graeme Reed at the Assembly of First Nations; and Kathleen Padulo at the Chiefs of Ontario Secretariat for their dedication, time, and assistance with the promotion and coordination of this research project.
Most importantly, we are deeply grateful to the Indigenous people who shared their stories with us.