It has been said that when the Cree get sick, they lose their right to their traditional foods. That right will soon be returned to them. Under a one-year pilot program, seasonal traditional foods will become part of the four-week menu rotation at the Chisasibi hospital.
The project will see geese, duck, bear, moose, caribou and rabbit -maybe even wild berries – make their way into the menu rotation over the next year. The logistics still have to be worked out by the local Cree Trappers Association.
Edward Tapiatic, the Director of Traditional Pursuits and the Cultural Coordinator of Chisasibi, says, “We started something last year during the summer fall season. We gave a few smoked fish to the hospital. They accepted them provided the cooks inspected them before serving it.”
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of Quebec (MAPAQ) has given the project the green light despite MAPAQ rules that all meat served in restaurants and institutions has to be inspected and certified. Sometimes even the way the animal is raised, the habitat and the way it is killed has to be inspected and certified. Yet the wild game to be served in the hospital will be from the bush, by local trappers and is not certified.
MAPAQ will be granting a special exemption for this project to go through. Along with the Cree Board of Health, they have engaged in meetings and training sessions to share their knowledge and ensure that the food will be safe. The training was to show what the MAPAQ guidelines and requirements are, as far as food safety and handling.
Eric House, a Councillor for the Chisasibi Band Council and a Traditional Food committee member, says that the Cree brought their own knowledge to the table. “The elders can tell right away if it’s good or bad. We don’t prepare food to make our people sick. This is what we want to show. We know our own food; it’s thousands of years of knowledge.”
Cree Health Board member Dr. Elizabeth Robinson says that MAPAQ has been very supportive of the project. “One of the guys in the ministry told me that they never dreamed that when they passed these laws, they would be preventing Cree people from eating Cree traditional food in their own community,” she observed. She acknowledges that the certification and inspection has a place though, especially with the many issues around food safety these days.
While no scientific research has been done yet, it appears that the eating of traditional foods boosts more than just the immune system; it does wonders for the spirit. No surprise for many Cree. House says that it is part of the cycle of life, “the animals eat the medicines and they are passed on to the people. When you feed the eeyou meechum, the wild food, in the hospital, you also feed their spirit.”
George Diamond, a program officer for Chisasibi and Traditional Food Committee member, says that traditional food has been brought in to the elders by family members. “We know that it is an excellent source of nutrients and everything else.”
Much work remains to be done, says Tapiatic. We still need to get a grip on a few guidelines and protocol and getting a few items like a vacuum pack machine,” he noted. “We want to do this year round, so we need to label the food and put expiry dates on them.”
The elders and the community have been asking for this for years and are looking forward to it. Says House, “It was always in the mind of the elders, it was always that we should be eating the berries, the fish, the wild food from the bush and the teas, these all have medicinal effects. It’s about time we acknowledged our own peoples’ wisdom.”