Climate Change: An Epidemic Faced by the Indigenous and Global Population

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There is no denying the problematic truth of climate change. The effects of climate change can be seen through the global temperatures rising, the oceans warming, the ice sheets melting, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and extreme events (Government of Canada, 2015). As the temperature continues to increase, it is changing the structure of the surrounding areas that people live in, thereby affecting crops and farming and making construction more difficult. The increased pollution is also directly having negative health repercussions as it affects the food security in many areas. Food security refers to the finding of food that is accessible, available, nutritious, and safe to eat (Hunter, 2019). While the effects of climate change can be seen globally, it affects certain groups more than others given the cultural differences present within the Indigenous and non-Aboriginal populations.

The Indigenous population is more dependent on the environment and country food to meet their needs thereby making the effects of climate change more visible. Aboriginal people tend to be marginalized and impoverished which worsens the impact that climate change can have on them (Smith, n.d.). This paper attempts to dissect the generational impact that climate change can have on food security for the Indigenous population within Northern Canada. Climate change is affecting the physical environment, culture, and access to health services in relation to income and social status. This is because of the Westernization of their culture and values since colonization. Income and social status are also factors that worsen the impact of climate change for the Indigenous population as food tends to be more expensive on reserves and in Northern provinces compared to heavily populated cities (Martens, 2015). Education and literacy tend to impact the social determinant of income and social status as it can impact how much money one is making and the types of foods that are affordable. The lack of access to health services and the effect of cultural differences can also further worsen the consequences of climate change and food insecurity.

Culture and Physical Environment

Everyone is affected by climate change at different rates. While all people in Canada are affected to a certain extent, First Nations people experience the impact of climate change in ways that non-Aboriginal Canadians do not due to their heavy reliance and connectedness to the environment. Treaties were negotiated between the Crown and the local Aboriginal populations during colonization. These were guided by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which is a document that acknowledged that the new British settlers would have to address existing Aboriginal rights and that the Crown would have to guarantee certain rights to local First Nations. The Royal Proclamation emphasizes that all land would be considered Aboriginal land until ceded by treaty. It also forbade the new settlers from claiming land from the original occupants and states that only the Crown can buy land from First Nations (Burnett & Read, 2016). These factors, collectively, reemphasize the fact that Aboriginal people had their own practices and way of life long before the new European settlers entered their land.. Throughout history, First Nations people have culturally depended on the natural environment for physical, social, economic, cultural and spiritual ways of life thus making them highly vulnerable to any change (Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, 2006). The Indigenous population heavily relies on traditional or country food to sustain themselves. This is food acquired from the land including food that is trapped, harvested, collected, hunted and fished (Hunter, 2019). This is done in order to help keep people connected with nature whilst promoting sharing within the community. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey (2011), Nunavut has the highest percentage of food insecurity within Canada at more than 35%, followed by the Northwest Territories at 14%. Nearly 86% and 51% of the population within Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, respectively, self-identify as Aboriginal (Statistics Canada, 2019). This reemphasizes the underlying factors that include high prices for fruits and vegetables in local stores, changes in the availability of traditional foods due to access issues, landscape changes, and concerns about the health of the soil, plants, and wildlife (Martens, 2015).

The ever increasing climate change is drastically affecting First Nations communities. This is largely because it is making it more difficult for them to inhabit their original lands given the alterations to the physical environment. The primary concerns include aggravated water and food insecurity, natural disasters, and population displacement (Ford, 2012). There have been a number of physical changes including increased levels of extreme temperatures, changes in snow and ice composition, increased permafrost melting, rising sea-levels, changes in air pollution, and decreased structural stability (Furgan & Sequin, 2006). The lowered snow and ice composition along with the melting permafrost are having a substantial impact on the Indigenous population who rely on traditional ecological knowledge. This is essentially a body of knowledge, practice, and beliefs that are passed down throughout generations and include certain methods of food acquisition that meets the needs of an Indigenous person or group (Hunter, 2019). There have also been changes in animal behavior which is typically due to signs of stress. These changes include the migration patterns of the polar bear and caribou populations which has increased the difficulty of hunting.(Alexander et al., 2011). As mentioned earlier, permafrost melting is becoming problematic for food security amongst the Indigenous population and this has lead to a loss of housing as it damages the infrastructure of older buildings (Burnett & Read, 2016). Previously, underground cellars dug into the permafrost provided food storage and were convenient, provided ample space, and were an economically viable method for refrigeration. Global warming is resulting in higher than normal temperatures which are rendering these cellars useless (Brubaker, Bell & Rolin, 2009). These higher temperatures are decreasing the periods of time where the temperature is cold enough for preserving food and it can lead to flooding of the cellars. This ultimately causes a loss of traditional food sources for the sum of the colder season (Brubaker et al., 2009). Hence, Indigenous population are pushed towards purchasing more imported, processed foods of low nutritional value, such as white rice, white flour products, sugar-rich foods and fatty meat which adds to loss of traditional culture and diminishes health amongst the Aboriginal population (Kuhnlein et al., 2013). Due to the drastic changes in climate, the North is becoming less isolated thereby making it easier for developers and industries to attempt to find and tap resources in the previously untouched areas. Some traditional routes are also now unreachable as the early melt of lakes, rivers, and sea ice makes travel routes unsafe during the spring. Increased evaporation is leading to decreasing water levels that are unsuitable for boat travel and there is health inequity as there is less cost-effective nutritious food available in the heavily Indigenous Northern provinces (Burnett & Read, 2016). All of these factors are cumulatively leading to the Aboriginal population being increasingly Westernized and there is an attempt to push out Indigenous culture, all for a more commercialized society.

Access to Health Services in Relation to Income and Social Status 1

Education is typically associated with higher earnings which should imply that all groups derive an economic benefit from education yet studies show that Aboriginal people who complete a Bachelor’s degree still face substantial income disparity (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2013). This shows that self-identified Aboriginal men and women face significant income and earning disparities in relation to non-Aboriginal Canadians. Income and earning gaps ranged from 10 to 20% and 20 to 50%, respectively, for women and men. Data also shows that the largest income gap occurs between Registered Indian men and non-Aboriginal men at around 50%. Registered Indian Women have an average earning gap of 11%, followed by non-status Indian women at 9%, and Metís women at 8% (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2013). There has also been an overall declining earning gap for all Indigenous groups between 1995 and 2005. In specifics, the gap was reduced by 5%, 12%, 33%, and 50% for Registered Indians living on reserves, Registered Indians living off-reserves, non-status Indians, and Métis respectively (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2013). All of these statistics reemphasize that there is an evident link between social status and income disparity amongst the Aboriginal population. With climate change reducing the amount of traditional ecological knowledge they can use to acquire food, this is leading to a shift towards more processed and unhealthy foods, as mentioned earlier. In the Northwest Territories and Yukon, mammals such as the moose, whitetail deer, coyotes, and cougars, are already being observed further north than usual (Ogden, 2002). A study done at University of Alberta found that more than 34% of food budgets in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories were for sweets and snacks (i.e. cheaper foods that lack nutritional value) (Rosen, 2016). This contributes to health issues such as high infant mortality rates, high rates of tuberculosis, higher rates of diabetes, and overall widespread food insecurity (Webster, 2016).

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The social status of being Aboriginal predisposes the Indigenous population to a variety of health conditions due to the push towards less country or traditional food. Having more health issues whilst also losing traditional cultural practices increases the suicide rate amongst the Indigenous population: “A 2015 report commissioned by the Inuit found that 27% of the deaths deemed in a coroners reports to have been suicides by Inuit people between 2005 and 2011 are missing from the figures” (Webster, 2016). Thus, this implies that the suicide rate is 11 times the Canadian average or 55% higher than the Canadian government acknowledges. It also accounts for approximately 40% of Indigenous youth deaths comparatively to 8% of the non-Aboriginal Canadian population. These physical and mental conditions accentuate the need for better access to both physical, social, and mental health services present for the Indigenous population especially in the Northern Territories of Canada. Lack of transportation and barriers to health service professionals due to Canada’s geographic remoteness exacerbate these symptoms. There are 52 communities across Inuit Nunaat that do not have year-round road access and only have a few hospitals (National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, 2011). The Indigenous populations in Northern Canada are also less likely to have access to specialized health care professionals and a lack of permanent health professionals with low levels of continuous care and this tends to reduce the effectiveness of the care given. The lack of access to health services in the North means that either they are forced to leave home in order to receive treatment or have so much difficulty accessing appropriate mainstream primary health care services that they do not attempt to get the help that they need (Davy et al., 2016).


Climate change tends to exacerbate environmental, social, and economic challenges within the Indigenous population (Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, 2006). The issues that Northern Indigenous communities face are a lack of medical resources, a lack of medical professionals, proper health education, and an insufficient amount of healthy and traditional foods (Dickason & Newbigging, n.d.). The lack of these subjects means that Northern Indigenous communities are reliant on non-Indigenous Canadians to provide care. This could be detrimental though, as this could take away cultural norms, traditional medical practices, and healthy lifestyle choices. Westernized society entering these communities also negatively impacts the mental health of youth and adults. With Northern Canada being an isolated part of the nation, getting to these communities is a task all on its own. Climate change has not made gaining access to provide adequate health care providers and resources any easier. The flooding of lakes, rivers, and melting permafrost creates difficult travel thereby making access during the winter and spring months minimal (Baird, 2008).

Due to the trials and tribulations that Indigenous people face when intervention by non-Indigenous people occurs and the history of harm and discrimination, gaining access to provide supports in these communities could be difficult. One way to gain access to these communities is to create a multi-disciplinary team that includes Indigenous healers, elders, and Western doctors. It is important to have Indigenous people or people trusted by these communities on teams with non-Indigenous health care providers because it helps create a sense of understanding and trust. In an applied clinical setting, the cultural differences that arise in language, expectations, traditional indigenous knowledge, beliefs, and skills may not correspond with non-Aboriginal lifestyles. Indigenous healers and elders are able to contribute something that a non-Indigenous person cannot and they include culture, tradition, and spiritual entities that would be lacking without these Indigenous persons involved (Hewson, 2015). It is always important for Indigenous people to have their traditions and beliefs recognized and implemented when entering into their communities. Gaining trust within the communities is the first step to providing effective and positive health care to those in Northern Canada. Step two would be to ensure that the Indigenous communities in the North are receiving the same level of health care as those living in Southern Canada. This could be difficult as there are less resources in the North due to inaccessibility and lack of collaboration between Western medicine and Indigenous persons (Davy et al., 2016). Organizing the people would include having Indigenous healers and trusted allies working together to promote these changes. Organizing people in Indigenous culture typically means having elders or respected persons within the community to promote and relay the information (Hewson, 2015).

In order to assess the community, there would need to be research done in order to provide accurate needs of the people within the communities. The current information on health status for Northern Indigenous is minimal, but factual, and reflects the current needs of these communities (Kuhnlein et. al.,2013). Information gathered by new research would help determine what the cause and effects are in respect to the health and health care system in Northern Canada. By doing the research to assess the communities in Northern Indigenous lands will help determine the priorities that need to be addressed immediately. With the help of researchers, community members, and medical professionals the priorities that are sought to intervene through will help to create adequate health care.

The goals of this intervention would be to create a team of professionals that are available within multiple areas of each northern province. Ideally these teams would be incentivized to be present all year-round. The team members would be able to provide western medicine to the Indigenous population within all of the Northern provinces whilst prioritising and upholding the values that Aboriginal people have. Supplies would have to be flown into the hospitals where these teams are in mass quantities to ensure that all of the medicinal needs can be met within a timely manner as well as in areas that are inaccessible by road (Northwest Territories Lands, n.d.). Ideally this would result in a greater percentage of the Aboriginal population feeling comfortable with asking for help and would ultimately reduce the severe physical symptoms that are occuring due to the loss of traditional ecological knowledge and food severity. Managing physical symptoms of diabetes, tuberculosis, as well as nutritional deficiencies can lead to a positive overall impact within the population and help Aboriginal people with their mental health (Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, 2014). The outcomes of this intervention will be visible with reduced physical symptoms as well as a decreased suicide rate amongst the Aboriginal population. Maintaining this during all seasons will require a lot of planning, but doing constant check-in surveys within the Indigenous population would allow for adaptation and success within the program.

In short, climate change is having a detrimental effect on areas globally but is having the most severe impact on the Indigenous people in the north as they are more dependent on the environment for their basic survival needs. It is also having an detrimal impact on both the physical and mental health of Indigenous people. As Canadians, we all have a moral obligation to become more aware of how our actions are impacting not only ourselves but everyone around us. Progress has been made in developed nations in settling land claims and recognizing indigenous title, national governments have apologized for the colonial practices of history but our unfair treatment of them in the past will certainly never be forgotten (Burnett & Reader, 2016). Taking steps to potentially reduce climate change and its effects might help us get closer to achieving reconciliation. These challenges for Aboriginal people ultimately concerns all of us in many important ways. We are all living on and using the Earth’s precious resources and it is our job to protect it for as long as we can. Climate change is a problem for society and it is our responsibility to direct attention towards it in order to reduce the underlying root causes of vulnerability, not only for the Aboriginal population but for every living being on Earth.

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Climate Change: An Epidemic Faced by the Indigenous and Global Population. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
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