I have been eating a lot of fish lately. It is always good to eat the various types of fish the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes have to offer. However, over the years as I have travelled throughout the Far East, the Americas and Europe, I realize how fortunate we are in northern Ontario. Our fish win in my view.
My people, the Muskegowuk Cree, have always been fish eaters. For thousands of years we have lived on the shore of James Bay near the vast stretch of saltwater and along freshwater lakes and rivers. As nomadic people we counted on the land, the animals and fish for our survival. When all other food sources on the land disappeared in times of famine we could always turn to the sea, lakes and rivers for fish.
Fish, in great times of famine, have saved my people. We have always had access to freshwater fish, like Lake Trout, Speckled Trout, Pickerel and Char, and varieties of saltwater fish. In the old days most of the fishing was done by net in winter and summer. There was almost always an abundance of fish.
In those days my ancestors smoked and barbecued their fish over a fire. This was the only means of cooking the fish. By smoking fish my people could preserve it for a long period of time. They could also store it or travel with it. Often the fish would be simply cooked over a fire on a spear of wood. Today the Cree of James Bay don’t eat that much fish as we now depend on food delivery from the south and we buy all kinds of products from local stores.
Fishing is very secondary to hunting these days because it requires a lot more knowledge, time and work to fish. Some people still smoke fish and from time to time Elders will cook fish over the fire on the land. Regretfully, people prefer the ease of shopping at the local stores although the diet is not as healthy as natural food sources from the land. These days people fish more for recreation. A lot of Elders have sad memories of depending on fish to survive during severe times of famine.
I recall my grandmother Louise Paul Martin telling me about times in great famine when mothers became malnourished and could not provide breast milk anymore. The parents would turn to fish and prepare a broth to feed to their babies
as a replacement for breast milk. Many a baby boy and girl owes their life to that fish broth which was full of nutrition.
Huge fish pan fries were common at my home back in Attawapiskat when I was a child. My mom would ask a local fisherman, most of the time this was my uncle Leo, for a supply of fresh fish. She would take a day to descale, clean and cut up the fish. She would then batter the fish and fry it up for supper. This fresh fish was served with nothing else and that was just fine with us. We had as much as we could eat and went away happy from the supper table. Since we were Catholics, a lot of the time these fish feasts happened on Fridays.
In my travels across Canada, the US, Europe and Asia, I realize just how rare fish are becoming. In Europe, people fry up little sardines and get very excited about that. A good fish meal is very expensive. Most fish these days in the south and other parts of the world come from fish farms and often the quality is not great. We are so lucky in northern Canada that we can still find great quantities of first-class quality fish. This is a luxury in most other parts of the world.
Fish and seafood should be a part of any healthy diet. It is an excellent option for protein, an important source of essential fatty acids and contains a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Fish is very low in calories, which makes it a good choice for those concerned with preventing and fighting diabetes. Maybe it is time to put fish back on the table. In northern Ontario that is easy to do.