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Country food reassurances offered at Kakisa workshop
Second annual event focuses on issues surrounding fish and mercury

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, September 5, 2013

Concerns about mercury levels in fish, and the sources of that mercury, were once again the primary topic at an annual workshop.

NNSL photo/graphic

Deanna Leonard, left, with Fisheries and Oceans Canada's fisheries management, speaks to participants in the A Return to Country Foods workshop about the Tathlina Lake study. Participants include facilitator Peter Redvers, left, Angus Sanguez, Heidi Swanson, Priscilla Canadien, Mike Wilkie, Henry Tambour, Joe Lacorne, and Deh Gah Got'ie First Nation Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge. - photo courtesy of George Low

The second annual A Return to Country Foods workshop was hosted by the Ka'a'gee Tu First Nation in Kakisa from Aug. 27 to 28. Thirty-five people including representatives from most First Nations and Metis groups in the Deh Cho, as well as presenters, attended the workshop organized by the Dehcho's Aboriginal Aquatic Resource and Oceans Management program (AAROM).

The workshop is about bringing together leaders and researchers to discuss the results of ongoing studies related to mercury in the Deh Cho, said George Low, the Dehcho's AAROM co-ordinator.

A positive message about the continued benefits of eating country foods, particularly fish, is stressed during the event.

"We're trying to promote eating fish," Low said.

This year, participants listened to presentations by officials and researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the territorial government, Environment Canada, Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, as well as AAROM, who spoke about studies that are currently underway and the results so far.

"It was a pretty good discussion," said Low.

A roundtable discussion also gave each participant the opportunity to speak about their concerns. Many of those concerns, including whether the levels of mercury in lakes are increasing and why, and if fish should still be consumed, are already being addressed by work that is underway, he said.

Chief Stan Sanguez of Jean Marie River First Nation was one of the participants at the workshop. The first workshop was held in Jean Marie River in August 2012.

"Of course, a lot of communities in the region are concerned about mercury," he said.

Health advisories that have been issued with guidelines about how much and what types of fish to eat from certain lakes have scared a lot of people, said Sanguez.

The A Return to Country Foods workshop is important because it gives researchers a chance to explain about mercury.

Sanguez said he finds it reassuring to learn about the studies taking place and looks forward to hearing about their results. Many of the presenters gave reassurances that mercury is not as big of an issue as people think, he said.

People who attend the workshop can pass on the message that fish is still good to eat as long as the right fish is chosen and portion guidelines are followed.

"I'm not so scared about fish anymore," he said.

Sanguez said one of his concerns is whether the federal government will continue to provide funding for continued research into mercury in fish and how mercury is getting into the environment.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Hay River last month, all he talked about was economic development in the North, said Sanguez.

"If we don't complete these surveys people won't really know what is happening," he said.

Sanguez said he hopes the workshops continue on an annual basis.

"People need to understand what mercury is about."

During the workshop, Mike Low, a technical adviser with AAROM, presented the initial findings of a study conducted by the program about what types of country foods are being eaten in the Deh Cho and how often.

There had been a concern that the health advisories are deterring some people from eating fish, said George.

The survey was conducted in five Deh Cho communities. Only the results from Fort Simpson and Kakisa have been summarized to date.

The results show many people in smaller communities are still eating fish and country foods, said George. Few people have changed their eating habits as the result of concerns about mercury. The majority of respondents wanted more information about mercury.

In addition to the two-day workshop, a one-day youth ecology camp was held on Aug. 29. Students from Kakisa, Jean Marie River and Fort Providence participated.

It was good to show the students how traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge are being combined together in studies, said Sanguez.

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