“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – Benjamin Franklin
Climate change is impacting and will continue to impact Indigenous communities across Canada for the foreseeable future. Understanding the potential impacts of climate change and where communities may be vulnerable are vital in developing a plan for dealing with climate change. Planning and being prepared for possible changes in the environment can help communities become more resilient and better able to take advantage of opportunities that may arise. Communities are working to develop holistic adaptation plans that consider the physical, social, cultural, and health impacts of climate change.
Food is fundamentally important for sustaining human life. People all around the world have developed a spiritual, social, and economic relationship with foods. With climate change and changing environments Indigenous people are observing negative impacts on plant and wildlife abundance and greater exposure to contaminants of traditional / country food systems. These observed changes are impacting harvesting practices and increasing reliance on non-traditional food substitutes.
For Indigenous communities, country foods continue to be socially, economically, and spiritually important for health and well-being and ensuring access in a changing climate is of utmost importance for a healthy physical, mental, and spiritual lifestyle. Securing access to culturally relevant and preferred, safe and nutritious foods is considered a global issue and is being taken seriously by governments, non-government organizations and communities around the world.
Communities dependent on access to traditional territory, whether by ice, water or land, are experiencing unpredictable conditions which are creating challenges for travel safety and food security. Forest fires, in-land flooding, thawing permafrost and melting ice can pose health risks by hindering access to country foods, which are an important component of Indigenous diets for spiritual and nutritional well-being.
Travel safety is of concern as communities are experiencing high accident rates and loss of equipment. Indigenous knowledge is often passed on by word of mouth and its reliability is heavily dependent on the knowledge of seasonal changes and weather patterns. Alterations in seasonal norms are impacting the nature of conventionally used travel routes and are forcing hunters to replace them with uncharted passageways. Hunters are sometimes finding themselves in dangerous situations where high risk choices are being made. Since 2008, several communities have identified that increasing access to Indigenous knowledge and other knowledge systems on environmental conditions could help improve travel safety and increase food security.
Sharing knowledge between and within generations is a valuable societal practice that brings context to experiences and helps individuals and communities make informed decisions. Whether it is passed on through story, books, video, arts, music, etc; the purpose is to educate, to create awareness, and to promote knowledge that is meaningful. The leaders of today and tomorrow need to have access to a wide array of knowledge and experience to make informed decisions on how to adapt to environmental change. Through community-led projects, communities are building capacity by engaging current and future leaders in the scientific process and by supporting education and knowledge sharing activities between Elders, youth and other community members.
By identifying relevant knowledge gaps, communities can effectively and strategically address the most relevant climate change and health adaptation impacts. Making the link between climate change and health adaptation and ensuring communities begin a conversation and set priorities are the first steps to preparing for success. These activities enable communities to identify their existing capacity to respond to the needs of community, prioritize thematic areas and opportunities for actions and move towards developing adaptation plans.
Indigenous peoples are experiencing many social and cultural stresses as a result of climate change and associated impacts. While many impacts are visible, often these changes present challenges that are not immediately obvious, particularly affecting mental health of communities. Because Indigenous peoples have such strong relationships with the environment, small changes in ecosystems may result in large, widespread mental health challenges. Understanding how changes to the physical environment are impacting the social, cultural and mental health of communities is an opportunity to improve the resilience of communities.
Societies throughout the globe have developed cultural practices and expertise focused on maintaining or restoring the spiritual and physical well-being of its peoples through the use of medicines. There are different approaches to healing which have been defined as western, alternative, and or traditional medicine. Traditional medicine knowledge holders have a profound understanding that there exists a binding relationship between environment and the use of plants as medic. Knowledge holders put a great deal of importance on environmental factors such as time, place, and method of collection on the quality of treatment of body and soul. There are many protocols people follow when gathering, storing, and preparing medicinal plants. This is a knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation through storytelling, traditional practices, songs and ceremony.
Climate change is impacting ecosystems and species diversity around the world. In Canada, increased rates of forest fires, invasive species, and resource exploration and development are threatening native indigenous edible and medicinal plants. It is therefore crucial that traditional medicine knowledge practices be supported and maintained for biocultural conservation of communities and environments, for future medical uses in the prevention and management of illness, and for safeguarding traditional medicine knowledge systems.
Conducting a health vulnerability assessment is a way to identify and measure potential harm to human health caused by climate change impacts. A health vulnerability assessment is an assessment of a community or region’s potential health risks brought on by climate change, and their ability to adapt. These assessments are a necessary starting point for understanding any vulnerabilities that a community or region may face over time due to climate change to provide key knowledge on adaptation.
Changing temperatures and increased uncertainty surrounding extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods and storms, may cause shifts in ecosystems and can favour the growth of water-borne bacteria and plants. Untreated natural water from local lakes, streams and rivers are important sources of water for many communities. Many residents perceive these sources to be healthier and cleaner than chlorinated tap water. However, there is little regular monitoring of the streams and rivers to verify the water quality over time.
Community-led projects that build capacity to sample, test, and monitor local water sources can reduce health risks from potentially unsafe water. At the same time, understanding local perceptions of water sources is a vital component of any project to ensure communities can respond to potential impacts.