Created in response to concerns about food supply, McGill’s Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) conducts participatory research across Canada and the rest of the world to assess the nutritional quality and environmental sustainability of traditional food systems.
Because the indigenous food supply is largely made up of locally available wildlife, rather than the market-based products common to urban areas, the safety and protection of these local ecosystems has become an area of great concern.
According to CINE’s website, frequently raised concerns are questions such as: how do we know our wildlife is safe to eat? What are the contaminant levels in our traditional food? How can we improve our nutrition? To answer these questions, CINE conducts specific research for each indigenous community, analyzing contaminant levels, pollution, nutritional deficiencies resulting from environmental degradation, the prevalence of chronic nutrition-related diseases, and socioeconomic factors that affect food choices.
One of the most important aspects of the program is the full participation of the indigenous communities. “A really important constant that was insisted upon by indigenous or aboriginal leaders was the fact that participatory research was used,” emphasized Dr. Harriet Kuhnlein, founding director of CINE. “[Aboriginal peoples] had their informed consent used, and they were given advanced notice… In other words, [there was] collaboration and communication with the leaders about the way plans were made.”
These values are reflected in CINE’s history, which began in the 1980s when Inuit and Dene communities in the North expressed concerns over the health and environmental effects of contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) – a toxic organic pollutant – in their food supplies.
“At that time, I was getting to know some of the traditional leaders, both the Inuit and the Dene leaders, and we just started talking about the need for a centre at McGill that could help indigenous people think about the different risks and benefits of using their local traditional food,” Kuhnlein recounted.
A few years later, indigenous leaders lobbied for funds to start the centre and CINE officially opened in September of 1993. Since then, CINE has expanded to include a wide circle of McGill professors, partners, and graduates who conduct research on traditional food systems around the world. Their research addresses a wide range of issues, including environmental health, the disappearance of wildlife, contaminants, and the nutritional quality of indigenous diets.
Karen Fediuk, a graduate of McGill’s School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, began her work with CINE and Kuhnlein as a graduate student analyzing vitamin C levels in Inuit food sources. Today, she works with Health Canada on the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study. Though independent of CINE, this research continues to embody the centre’s participatory principles.
“CINE was a great experience for me,” Fediuk said. “I’ve been out on the coast for the past few years and worked with many First Nation communities on food systems and it’s always been a very participatory approach.” She added that it’s “a great centre that’s been invaluable in documenting the risks and benefits of traditional food across Canada.”
Another important aspect of CINE’s research is the analysis of the nutritional effects of an increasingly market-based diet. According to Kuhnlein, globalization has presented poor quality foods — highly refined, processed, and inadequately fortified — at a very low cost.
“In Canada, there’s a lot of obesity cropping up because [indigenous peoples are] eating too much market food and not enough of their traditional food,” she explained. “For indigenous peoples who are often living in poverty circumstances, they don’t have the money to buy good quality food.”
In an attempt to address the resulting dietary deficiencies, CINE provides short nutrition courses to indigenous communities across the North. These courses equip indigenous people with reliable information to make informed decisions about their diets and lifestyles, encourage the consumption of traditional food, and train aboriginal health and community workers while incorporating traditional knowledge of nutrition and environment.
“The best quality food [indigenous people] have is their traditional food,” Kuhnlein explained. “And, so, that’s why we’re always encouraging them to eat as much of their traditional foods as they can to protect their health.”