University of Calgary Graduate Student, Megan Shares Her Preliminary Findings from Lloydminster & Onion Lake Cree Nation
As a graduate student from the University of Calgary’s Department of Anthropology, I have been partnering with Women Warriors over the past month and researching the nutritional realities of local Indigenous women (Cree and Metis) in Lloydminster and surrounding areas. Women Warriors’ founder and facilitator (and the usual author of this newsletter), Shelley Wiart, has observed that certain participants experience unique barriers to balanced eating and food security which impact their success in the program. Women Warriors celebrates Indigeneity in its design which is offered free of charge to its participants. Due to the large number of Indigenous women of various ages and walks of life enrolled, it provides a fruitful context to explore the diets of participants and their needs, values, and preferences concerning food and health. I would like to acknowledge that I myself am not Indigenous and do not claim any expertise in Cree, Metis, or any other Indigenous cultures. Many thanks to the Indigenous women and local health professionals who’ve been kind enough to share their time, stories, and experiences with me thus far.
Recommendation 19 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action states that measurable goals must be set to address health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in this nation. Recommendation 20 emphasizes that off-reserve Indigenous peoples must be considered and included in these goals. Diet can be directly linked to several health conditions which disproportionately affect Indigenous communities, such as obesity and diabetes. Furthermore, Indigenous women experience disproportionate rates of gestational diabetes, which can negatively impact the health of their children. While genetic predisposition may play a role, international and domestic research suggests that factors such as income, education, and food security are central to the development and progression of Type 2 diabetes[i]. Indigenous women may face marginalization based on race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Given the foundational role Indigenous women play in their families and communities, it is clear that their opinions and experiences regarding their diet and health are worthy of exploration.
Many of the friends and acquaintances I’ve made since embarking on this project have asked “why Lloyd?”. While the TRC’s recommendations are addressed to the federal government, they must be enacted locally—not just in metropolitan centers or on reserves, but in small cities like Lloydminster, and in their surrounding areas. While the majority of participants in this research reside outside of Lloydminster (in Onion Lake or neighboring towns or villages), every one of them accesses services and institutions in the city on a regular basis. With this in mind, I will share a few preliminary findings.
Almost every participant interviewed for this study thus far indicated that they access wild game (most commonly moose and deer), fresh fish, and/or wild berries throughout the year. However, there has been much variation in how often these foods are accessed. Some consume these foods upwards or three times per week during certain times of year, while others only consume them on special occasions or joint gatherings.
Several participants indicated that it is important to them to share traditional food practices with their children and/or younger generations. Explanations for this varied: some view this as an ideal and effective way to connect them to their culture, others emphasized the health values of such foods, and others still view them as an essential buffer against food insecurity. A few participants indicated that they wished they were more exposed to these traditional foods in their youth; these participants became connected to these foods and food practices later in life.
Supportive Networks and Food Sharing
Several participants in this study have young children and/or grandchildren who they are regularly responsible for preparing meals for. Furthermore, many regularly share meals with family outside of their household, such as parents, grandparents, children, and siblings. Many dine with these family members more than once a week. It has not been uncommon for participants to indicate that the foods they choose to buy, prepare, and consume are largely influenced by the preferences of these household and family members. Participants commonly indicated that they placed the dietary preferences of their families over their own (“if I made that, nobody else would eat it”, “I don’t love it but I make it because the kids like it”).
Some participants are involved in well-established food sharing networks with family, friends, and community members. These networks involve informal exchange or food items, such as baking, meat, berries, and gardened produce. Participants describe these food sharing relationships and practices as serving a variety purposes ranging from traditional to relational to necessity.
Some participants indicated that they feel that they cannot afford to eat balanced meals due to financial limitations. Dietary restrictions, and the high cost of allergy-friendly food products may further exacerbate this. Reported coping strategies included reducing meal sizes, borrowing money or food from supportive contacts, or self-provisioning through gardening or acquiring country foods. As of yet, no participant has reported using the local food bank or soup kitchens, although participants have indicated use of the Midwest Food fresh food box program.
Ideas About Local Services/Programs
When asked what programs or services should be offered locally to improve the health and nutrition of Indigenous women, participants came up with numerous thoughtful suggestions. Several participants claimed to struggle with planning balanced meals. Many participants reported a family history of diabetes, heart disease, and struggles with weight. Some reported that either they or their parents experienced a lack of food security growing up which led to their family developing a taste for cheap, processed foods. The impact of residential schools and the poor diets they imparted on attendees was also discussed. The connection between colonial violence and health was perhaps most pronounced in these conversations. One participant claimed with frustration that “Nobody ever taught [them] how to eat healthy, and [so they] never taught [their] kids how to eat healthy”. Even participants who did not recall food security being an issue in their family suggested that they could benefit from local resources to provide them with knowledge about planning nutritious meals. Other suggestions included:
- A program or service providing healthy groceries to expecting mothers in need throughout the duration of their pregnancies
- Programs to promote opportunities for Indigenous women to learn to garden.
- Free or affordable cooking classes teaching how to prepare meals with affordable ingredients.
There was a desire among participants to see such programs and services offered in the evenings, so that they are able to attend once they are finished work.
This research is still in the early stages of data collection and analysis. As it progresses, I am excited not only to continue to learn from participants about the challenges they face relating to health and nutrition, but also to hear about what supports they feel may help address these challenges. In doing so, I hope to collaborate with Indigenous knowledge holder and local service providers to create strategies that benefit participants and local Indigenous women more generally.
[i] Hill, J., Nielsen, M., & Fox, M. H. (2013). Understanding the Social Factors That Contribute to Diabetes: A Means to Informing Health Care and Social Policies for the Chronically Ill. The Permanente Journal, 17(2), 67–72. http://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/12-099