Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Kwakiutl featured on UVic website

Tom Child is being featured on the UVic website for his work on determining the quality of the traditional foods we eat (https://www.uvic.ca/current/):

Sea of concern

Does local seafood pose a health risk for Vancouver Island’s First Nations people?

by Jessica Gillies

When Tom Child was growing up in the Kwakiutl community of T’saxis on northeastern Vancouver Island, gathering traditional foods from the ocean was as natural as the rhythm of the seasons.

It still is. But now there are concerns about the quality of the food First Nations communities are harvesting and whether the health risks posed by environmental contaminants outweigh the known benefits of a traditional seafood diet.

“All the origin stories and legends that exist for First Nations on the coast involve the natural world, so our culture itself is dependent on a healthy environment,” says Child, a graduate student in the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies.

“Our elders are worried about the rapid changes to their local environment and important food-gathering sites,” says Child. “They want to know what pollution levels are out there, and they want to understand the risks these bring to their grandchildren.”

For his master’s degree, Child is working with Dr. Peter Ross, a wildlife toxicologist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, on the first-ever major study of the health benefits and risks of the seafood diet of BC’s coastal First Nations.

The study is a partnership among five First Nations communities, the Vancouver Island Region Wildlife Management Society, Health Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and UVic.

The study focuses on four groups of contaminants—flame retardants (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans, and heavy metals. All of these chemicals bio-accumulate in the food chain and can cause developmental, reproductive, immune and nervous system problems.

The team selected four traditional food species to study—harbour seals, sockeye salmon, Dungeness crab and butter clams.

To find out how important seafood is in contemporary First Nations diets, Child organized surveys of more than 300 people in the five communities. The results show that a typical survey respondent eats as much seafood in one month as the average Canadian eats in an entire year.

“It shows you how important this food source is,” says Child. “Coastal people aren’t just eating salmon; they’re taking advantage of a whole host of traditional resources, such as barnacles, chitons, seaweed, herring roe, halibut, prawns and more.”

To determine contaminant levels, Child and the study team tested food fishery salmon, and traditional shellfish harvesting and crabbing sites in each community. To test seals, they used a non-lethal method of collecting seal pups for blubber and blood samples.

Preliminary results suggest that PCB levels are low in all the species they studied except for harbour seals, which are high up on the food chain and live longer than fish, crabs or clams. PCBs accumulate over time in the seals’ fatty tissues.

Once contaminant analysis is complete, the next step is to determine the health risks of consuming traditional foods.
“We’re working on a risk assessment,” says Child. “But assessments don’t take into account the cultural importance of traditional foods. You have to weigh everything. Also, there are pollutants in all of our modern foods. They’re not isolated to traditional seafoods.”

In the end, it may turn out that the health and cultural benefits of eating traditional seafoods outweigh any potential harm. “We want to raise awareness,” says Child, “but we don’t want to create extra fear that will cause people to stop eating their traditional foods.”


  • The mainstays of the traditional seafood diet of Vancouver Island’s coastal First Nations are salmon, halibut, rockfish, seals, ooligan, crab, prawns, mussels, clams and cockles. Delicacies include seaweed, sea urchins, chitons and barnacles.
  • About 90 percent of seafood consumed by First Nations communities is gathered locally, rather than purchased at supermarkets or restaurants. Older generations consume more seafood than younger generations.
  • The study, titled “Traditional Seafoods of Vancouver Island First Nations: Balancing Health Benefits with Pollution Risks,” is funded primarily by the National First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program, a partnership between Health Canada and the Assembly of First Nations. For more information on the project, visit www.snuneymuxw.ca/seafood.htm.
  • UVic researchers were awarded more than $71 million in external research grants and contracts in 2006/07, doubling the research support of the previous five-year period.

To download the pdf version please visit:

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Economic Development

I have been reflecting for the past few months on my treaty stance. I believe that instead of just stating the negative side of signing a treaty in its current form, I should also provide alternatives to explore deeper. One topic that keeps coming up in my mind is economic development. Coming from a business background I can understand the concepts, but when it comes to treaty negotiations I have yet to transform these words into action in the real world. It seems to me that the number of job possibilities that are talked about in treaty discussions may be clouding our judgment. It is almost like some spontaneous event will make us economically free from government handouts - if we just get this treaty signed. I wonder if this is the case… A good question to ask is: will these jobs be around for our children? Because signing a treaty is more than what is immediately in front of us. More than a $10,000 cheque. More than lofty promises that have no plan to be achieved because, as we know, promises have been made in the past. It is about forever prospering on our own lands with our own resources. At least it should be.

I do not believe that the current Canadian-style consumer society we live in today is the answer to our long term survival as Kwakwaka'wakw. How can spending all of our hard earned resources outside of our territories, from non-Kwakwaka'wakw peoples, help us to become the wealthy nation we once were? We were respected by our neighbours because of the strength we had in unity. Our potlatch system allowed us to support one another by sharing our wealth within the Kwakwaka'wakw nation. We became rich and powerful because the great chiefs before us spent this wealth supporting their community in exchange for witnessing birthrights and inheritances. Let me say this: I don't think 'going back to the bush' is going to bring back some perfect life that we left behind. Things were very tough, but they were also very rewarding. There is a way to balance our ways with sustainable economic development. Let us take care of our environment, be leaders and stewards of our territories and instead of buying products and services from others, lets consider supporting one another by buying locally and from fellow Kwakwaka'wakw people whenever possible.

What is economic development from a Kwakwaka'wakw perspective? I do not claim to have the answers that will solve our valid concerns for the future. I do, however, want to discuss it fully and be a part of what my unborn children will live through. May that future provide prosperity as Kwakwaka'wakw people. Our choices now will directly impact the next generation and the generations to come. Let us come together and support one another.