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HOME > HEALTH > NRBFCS > Backgrounder

The Northern River Basins Study (NRBS) was established by the governments of Canada, Alberta and the Northwest Territories to examine the relationship between industrial, municipal, agricultural and other developments in the Peace, Athabasca and Slave River basins. The NRBS was launched in response to concerns expressed by northern residents following the decision of the Alberta Government to allocate additional forestlands for pulp and paper production. A study was completed by the NRBS to gather and assess information relating to water and ecosystem quality, fish and fish habitat, vegetation, wildlife, hydrology/hydraulics and use of aquatic resources.

The various governments have agreed on the need to develop new, human-based fish consumption policies, standards and guidelines for the Northern River Basins. The process was to build on the data and information generated by the periodic surveys of fish contaminants. With the privatization of monitoring in this Province, this has not been achieved. The only guideline Alberta has is the Alberta Guide to Sportfishing. These advisories are very limited in information and do not include the areas we are proposing to sample. The sampling of fish and analyses of such will have to be undertaken in the next fiscal year to fully build the data base that is required and to fully complete the study as originally planned. An improved mechanism should include timely interpretation of findings, dissemination of information in a meaningful and culturally sensitive fashion and contemporary population health risk management and risk management concepts.

As part of the Northern River Basins follow up, Alberta Treaty 8 Health Authority in partnership with eight First Nations and Health Canada, we have undertaken the proposal study, which will proceed on the following recommendations:

“Alberta Health, Alberta Environmental Protection and Northwest Territories Health and Social Services, together with Health Canada and First Nations Health Authorities be charged with responsibility of leading and co-ordinating and developing of new, human health based fish consumption policies, standards and guidelines for the Northern River Basins.” (The Northern River Basins Study: Report to the Minister, 1996).

The Northern River Basins Food Consumption Survey began as a collaborated effort between Alberta Treaty 8 Health Authority, Health Canada and eight different First Nations in Northern Alberta. This project was aimed at improving the health of First Nations in Treaty 8 and for future generations to come. 

The primary objective of this project was to respond to the following recommendation from the Northern River Basin Study to develop fish consumption guidelines. The presence of contaminants in the food chain including fish is a concern for many residents of the Northern River basins that rely extensively on traditional food as a means of subsistence based on the traditional food consumption patterns. 

There has not been any current information collected on the existence of fish consumption advisories in the Peace-Athabasca and Slave River systems. There is a need to review existing advisories to update the human health based policies, standards and guidelines that came about from the Northern River Basin Study.

As part of our effort with Health Canada, Alberta Treaty 8 Health Authority has completed a food survey with eight communities in Northern Alberta. The survey profiled traditional food consumption patterns and traditional food beliefs. Currently, Health Canada, along with Dialogos Consulting and Alberta Treaty 8 Health Authority worked on the data entry and analyses of the food survey. A food cost survey has been completed and along with the food consumption survey and the fish consumption guidelines, we will have a complete database for contaminants, healthy food choices and an analysis of risk and social structures based on traditional food belief and consumption. 

The presence of contamination in the food chain is a concern for many residents in the northern river basins who rely extensively on traditional foods for subsistence. The earlier Northern River Basins Study identified some concerns regarding levels of organochlorine and heavy metal contaminants in some freshwater species, used as food by First Nation people of northern Alberta (Northern River Basins Study, Report to the Ministers, 1996). There has also been attention focused on Poly Chlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) contamination of food species used by First Nation people in the Swan Hills area of Alberta (Health Canada, 1999). Eating and sharing traditional foods, as well as hunting and fishing activities are integral to identify, health and well-being (Furgal et al., 1999)

Conventional, fish consumption guidelines have been on predetermined levels of chronic exposure to contaminants defined by first establishing an experimental threshold in animals. From a human perspective, it is important that a balance be found between eating fish, which provides an excellent source of protein and other nutrients, and the potential danger to health due to contaminants. Factors such as the movement of fish, the geographic variation of concentrations, the types of fish contaminated, trends of concentrations over time also have to be considered in developing and re-assessing fish consumption advisories.

Previous traditional/country food advisories in First Nations communities have resulted in socio-economic disruptions (Shkilnyk, 1985), and as often is the case for more northern or remote communities, there are few food source alternatives (Wheatley and Wheatley). One study found that Labrador Inuit held that eating traditional foods was better for their health than market foods, due to the fact that they have better nutritional value and a better taste; they are fresh with no preservatives, part of their main diet and are more satisfying and better for physical and mental health. (Fergal et al., 1999). Indirect effects of environmental contaminants can include change in lifestyle and diet, which leads to socio-cultural and economic disruption (Wheatley and Paradis, 1996). These changes in turn can result in chronic health problems such as Type II diabetes and obesity (Wheatley and Paradis, 1996; Kuhnlein, 1995; Garro, 1995)

Factors such as accessibility to nutritious and affordable alternative food sources also need to be considered when developing traditional food consumption advisories. It may be difficult to promote an advisory in a community where food security may already be threatened due to high market food prices (Campbell et al., 1997). A previous study of dietary exposure to contaminants in the country food supply in the North West Territories found that based on current consumption patterns, little risk was present and therefore consumption of traditional foods should even be encouraged (Berti et al., 1998).