Honouring Earth

From the realms of the human world, the sky dwellers, the water beings, forest creatures and all other forms of life, the beautiful Mother Earth gives birth to, nurtures and sustains all life. Mother Earth provides us with our food and clean water sources. She bestows us with materials for our homes, clothes and tools. She provides all life with raw materials for our industry, ingenuity and progress. She is the basis of who we are as “real human beings” that include our languages, our cultures, our knowledge and wisdom to know how to conduct ourselves in a good way. If we listen from the place of connection to the Spirit That Lives in All Things, Mother Earth teaches what we need to know to take care of her and all her children. All are provided by our mother, the Earth.

Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts of water, air and fire. First Nations peoples’ have a special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity. It is also based on the subsistence needs and values extending back thousands of years. Hunting, gathering, and fishing to secure food includes harvesting food for self, family, the elderly, widows, the community, and for ceremonial purposes. Everything is taken and used with the understanding that we take only what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it so that future generations will not be put in peril.

Environmental degradation affects the health and well-being of not only the First Nations people but all peoples of North America and the world in many ways. First Nations peoples do not yet know all the ways harmful man-made substances affects fish, wildlife, habitat, and human beings. However, First Nations people are aware that pollutants and contaminants, especially those originating from industrial development, have negative consequences for the health of all living things, including humans. Industrial contamination and disruption of wildlife habitat combine to reduce the supply and purity of traditional foods and herbal medicines. Finally, degradation erodes the quality of life dependent on the purity of the land, water, flora and fauna, and further affects Indigenous people’s cultures, languages and spiritual health and well-being.

First Nations peoples can demonstrate how, in asserting their land use and rights, economic initiatives can be both profitable and sustainable for future generations. First Nation traditional knowledge has provided our people with the tools to care for Mother Earth and our sacred sites. This knowledge can be shared with industry for the betterment and survival of all peoples.



Agricultural practices can cross into many of the environmental areas that the Environmental Stewardship Unit works on such water issues and the health impacts of chemicals used in agriculture such as pesticides and climate change.

The use of pesticides and chemicals to produce agricultural goods affects First Nations people both on and off their First Nations. The protection of Mother Earth through sustainable agricultural practices is encouraged by the Assembly of First Nations.

Biodiversity and Genetic Resources

Species protection and support for biological diversity are essential to the sustainability of traditional First Nations lifestyles. Members of First Nations consume large quantities of ‘country foods’ such as deer, moose, elk, bear, beaver, rabbit, goose, duck, and partridge as well as fresh fish, sap, wild rice, and berries. Many First Nations continue to use sacred herbs including sage, tobacco, cedar and sweet grass as traditional medicines and for ceremonial purposes. Many endangered and rare plants and animals continue to live only in First Nation lands and waters. To this end, the protection and furtherance of biodiversity, key to preserving species at risk, is a focal point for the ESU.

Canada signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on June 11, 1992, and ratified it on December 4, 1992. The CBD was entered into force on December 29, 1993. Currently, there are 188 parties to the Convention. The treaty aims to promote species and ecosystem conservation, sustainable use of its components, recognition of traditional knowledge and its holders, and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

Read more about the Convention on Biological Diversity The Convention on Biological Diversity
“is dedicated to promoting sustainable development. Conceived as a practical tool for translating the principles of Agenda 21 into reality, the Convention recognizes that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro organisms and their ecosystems – it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live.”

[UNEP, 2008]

Species at Risk and Conservation

The Species At Risk Act (SARA) was enacted in 2002. The preamble to the Act states that:

“…the traditional knowledge of the aboriginal peoples of Canada should be considered in the assessment of which species may be at risk and in developing and implementing recovery measures.”

The AFN applauds the Canadian government’s recognition of the essential role of Aboriginal peoples by explicitly acknowledging First Nations knowledge and the unique relationship with lands, waters, plants and animals. Through AFN’s work in this area, the ESU is committed to ensuring First Nations have a voice and active role in matters pertaining to wildlife preservation, as this affects their ability to use and further Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) and to pursue traditional lifestyles. The ESU supports ongoing work to ensure that First Nations’ perspectives and voices are continuously recognized, both in the wording of federal acts like the Species At Risk Act and in the actions and regulations pursued under those acts.

The AFN participates in the SARA legislated National Aboriginal Council On Species At Risk (NACOSAR) and the council’s policy and planning sub-committee. The ESU remains committed to ensuring that implementation of the Species At Risk Act furthers First Nations’ enjoyment of their Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.

ESU Resources:

SARA Survival Guide



People are exposed to a variety of contaminants, chemicals and heavy metals. These enter into the body by breathing, touching objects, eating and drinking. In many cases, contaminants can stay inside one’s body for years and the overall accumulation of contaminants may have impacts to one’s health.

Biomonitoring is a scientific technique that can detect the level of environmental contaminants by collecting samples of human fluids and/or tissues such as blood, urine, breast milk, hair, nails, expelled air, etc.

The First Nations Biomonitoring Initiative (FNBI) is a First Nations specific study that will allow for the assessment and measurement of contaminants in the First Nation population. Currently there is no baseline data for the level of chemical contamination in First Nations peoples. The FNBI will fill this existing gap in biomonitoring research and serve to complement the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS), a national health survey of the Canadian population that began in 2008, that excludes First Nations peoples living on reserve.

The First Nations Biomonitoring Initiative pilot project was successfully carried out (winter 2011) in two First Nation communities, after signing community research agreements with both communities and consent forms with each participant. A total of 252 First Nations people – randomly selected and above 20 years old – participated in the initiative.

The environmental chemicals measured include trace metals (e.g. mercury, uranium, etc.) as well as persistent organic pollutants (PCBs, pesticides, etc.). The results were sent to participants and a final report was presented to the community. The AFN will be custodian of the data collected, guarantying that OCAP principles are observed at all times.

The FNBI full-scale project took place during the summer/fall 2011 with the sampling of 13 communities south of 60 and a participation of 503 First Nations people. Individual results were sent to participants and community reports were completed in the fall 2012.

The ESU plans to obtain a First Nation national picture on environmental contaminants as well as to advocate for a national expansion of the study to include 200 First Nation communities.ESU resources.

First Nations Biomonitoring Initiative – National Results (2011) – June 2013
Note: The report is 734 pages. The PDF file is 9 MB. Please be patient while the file downloads.

Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS):

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/cgi-bin/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurve y&SDDS=5071&lang=en&db=imdb&adm=8&dis=2

ESU Resources:

Biomonitoring: General Background
Goal of the First Nations Biomonitoring Initiative
Chemical Exposure
Biomonitoring Reduce Exposure
Examples of Biomonitoring
Step by Step Biomonitoring Process
Biomonitoring Brochure

Canadian Environmental Protection Act

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), 1999 is riddled with weaknesses that compromise its ability to adequately protect the environment and First Nations’ Aboriginal and Treaty Rights (which depend on having healthy natural ecosystems and environments).

  • CEPA currently provides inadequate protection for vulnerable ecosystems (such as wetlands and coastal estuaries) and rare species’ habitat zones.
  • CEPA fails to protect vulnerable populations, such as First Nations, who are dependent on the health of the natural environment to support their traditions, livelihoods and culture.
  • CEPA implementation has failed thus far to incorporate government-to-government partnership with First Nation governments and to be respectful of First Nation tradition and protocols.

First Nations’ require information on required federal legislation that impacts their lands, waters and air in order to properly participate in the processes of reviewing, changing or implementing the legislation. Information must be provided in a culturally sensitive manner that acknowledges First Nations’ needs and the lack of capacity that exists for most First Nation communities wanting to participate in environmental advocacy initiatives to steward their lands, waters and air.

The ESU strives to bring First Nations’ environmental concerns and interests into the spotlight in order to ensure that the Government of Canada is proactive in including First Nation governments in environmental decision-making.

  • The AFN has encouraged strengthening of CEPA, 1999 to provide more protection to First Nation communities.
  • The AFN has drafted three written interventions for the parliamentary hearings on CEPA. These interventions related to weaknesses of CEPA in protecting vulnerable ecosystems and peoples, and in cooperating with First Nation governments.
  • The AFN developed CEPA ‘99 toolkits in both official languages and distributed them at First Nations’ meetings and workshops in order to inform First Nations across Canada of the possible implications of this Act on their rights and economic interests.

ESU Resources:

CEPA ‘99 Toolkit



First Nations people, especially children and elders, are experiencing extensive negative health impacts as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals, poor air quality, contaminated water and other environmental hazards.

  • Contaminant emissions into air, water and earth must be reduced at the source by those who are creating them.
  • Extensive environmental clean-up is required to account for past degradation of air, lands and waterways.
  • First Nations require tools and capacity support to develop their own programs in support of environmental stewardship to increase current ecosystem vitality and to ensure ecosystem health for seven generations to come.


Environmental Health

AFN Health and Social Policy Area

Environmental Health “…comprises of those aspects of human health, including quality of life, that are determined by physical, chemical, biological, social, and psychosocial factors in the environment. It also refers to the theory and practice of assessing, correcting, controlling, and preventing those factors in the environment that can potentially affect adversely the health of present and future generations.”

World Health Organization (WHO) draft definition developed at a WHO consultation in Sofia, Bulgaria, 1993.

First Nations people have long recognized that the health of the environment and the health of the individual are intimately connected. From a First Nations holistic perspective, health includes the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual aspects. The environment plays a vital role with respect to all aspects of health. Understanding the linkages between the environment and the health of First Nations’ peoples is crucial in order to enhance the protection of their health from exposure to future environmental hazards.

Environmental health is a vital component of the overall health of First Nations people, as many continue to rely heavily on the environment for their social, cultural, economic and physical survival and well-being. Unfortunately, in recent times, this dependence on the land has also presented higher than normal risks to health. The consumption and use of traditional plant species and “wild” foods has significantly increased exposure to chemical and biological contaminants which has in turn resulted in a suspected decline in the overall health status of First Nations people either due to consuming contaminated traditional foods and/or by turning to less nutritious processed market foods.

The ESU is actively engaged in environmental health issues. With the ESU’s environmental health program, we are conducting research on ways to improve quality of life by reducing health and safety risks that result from interactions between people and their environments. The ESU is also working with government and First Nation communities on primary prevention of illnesses through a combination of surveillance, education, enforcement, and assessment programs that identify, prevent, and abate the environmental conditions that adversely impact human health.


Air Pollution and Smog
Children and Environmental Health
Climate Change general
Environmental Assessment
Federal Environmental Assessment Process
GM Foods
Household Chemicals
Landfill Wastes
Occupational Health
Toxic Metals – Cadmium
Toxic Metals – Lead
Traditional Knowledge
Toxic Metals – Mercury

Reasearch Papers

Discussion Paper re Childrens Health and the Environment
Final Environmental Health Scoping paper
Feasibility Study
Research Ethics
Enviro Health and Older Adults and Seniors
Enviro Health and Women
Traditional Foods Safety Paper
FN Perspectives on Enviro Health


The First Nations Environmental Health Innovation Network (FNEHIN) is a national network that aims to link First Nations’ communities and organisations with practical environmental health information, tools and environmental health researchers. The ultimate goal of FNEHIN is to assist First Nations in identifying, researching and solving Environmental Health problems by providing relevant information and supporting partnerships in a network approach that builds capacity, strengthens institutions and promotes self-reliance.


National First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program

The National First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program (NFNECP) was launched in 1999 as a collaborative research program between the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Medical Services Branch, now known as the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch (FNIHB), Health Canada.

The objective of the NFNECP is to help First Nations’ of Canada assess the extent of their exposure to environmental contaminants and the potential for associated risk to their health and well-being. NFNECP funding enables communities to acquire the resources necessary to develop projects that explore the link between environmental contaminants and human health. The results of NFNECP projects provide communities with valuable tools to initiate or influence remediation action on the foundation of better knowledge.

The AFN continues to support the program through its participation in the NFNECP Steering Committee and in its new role as “Program Champion”, while continuing to advocate for First Nations’ interests with respect to environmental health issues. The ESU will develop a lobbying strategy to advocate for more federal funding for the program and will highlight and showcase the best practices and successes of the program.

Apply to the program:

For more information on this program and how to apply please go to:

Natural Resources

Aboriginal and Treaty Rights apply to First Nations’ dominion over natural resources in their traditional lands. Natural resources are considered to be both mineral (inorganic) or biological (organic), renewable and non-renewable, located on the land, under the land, or in water or air, and are used by First Nations’ to satisfy human needs and promote economic development. First Nations’ have not traditionally considered the environment as a resource but have found it necessary to assert their rights to natural resources in response to external forces which have limited their ability to participate in traditional activities that depend on the aspects of the environment that are considered to be ‘resources’ by government, industry and citizens at large.

The main issues facing First Nations with respect to natural resources are the infringement of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights by federal and provincial legislation; ongoing disputes over the scope of First Nations’ rights to natural resources; and the negative impact on traditional livelihoods and lifestyles that First Nations’ experience as a result of widespread exploitation of resources. The ESU is committed to advocating for First Nations in order to ensure that resource extraction causes the least possible environmental impact and follows principles of sustainable use and corporate social responsibility.

Federal and provincial governments are engaged in reviewing, altering, and in some cases simplifying legislation on an ongoing basis. It is important that reviews and changes are monitored for their potential impacts to First Nations’ Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. The ESU is committed to monitoring policy changes at the Federal level and advocating for First Nations’ interests as necessary.

Traditional Foods

First Nations peoples have a cultural, traditional and social connection to the land and many communities continue to rely on traditional food for their socio-cultural, economic, and physical well-being. However, there is increasing concern about environmental contaminants, including heavy metals, being present in these foods. First Nations and the ESU have a special interest in preserving and protecting the environment to provide a healthy future for generations to come.

Traditional food systems and a way of life are being threatened by numerous outside impacts including climate change, degradation of plant and animal habitats and widespread environmental contamination.

  • Preservation of First Nations’ traditional lifestyles, cultures and health (physical, mental, spiritual and emotional) depends on the persistence of ‘country foods’ in First Nations’ traditional territories.
  • Loss of access to traditional foods (through contamination, at-risk populations, extirpations or extinctions) translates into a loss of food security, as these foods are the culturally acceptable staples of First Nations’ diets.
  • Loss of access to traditional foods must be remediated by provision of access to safe, affordable and culturally acceptable alternative food choices and through environmental stewardship action aimed at restoring endangered plant and animal populations and minimizing exposure to environmental contaminants, as well as managing the risks associated with consumption of traditional foods.

Loss of traditional food sources remains one of the greatest threats to First Nations enjoyment of traditional ‘country’ foods. Research and action aimed at guaranteeing the ongoing health of traditional food sources is essential for First Nation communities and personal health and well-being.

ESU Resources

Traditional Food Safety Paper

First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study

The First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study (FNFNES) documents traditional and market food consumption; estimates exposure to contaminants and intake of nutrients of concern across communities; documents self-reported health status and lifestyle habits across communities; and documents food related needs and concerns will help to support development of sound food consumption practices. The FNFNES studies statistically relevant data on levels of contaminants in traditional foods for all regions and ecozones of the country. The study collects baseline data on the presence of pharmaceutical products in surface water, and will determine the body burden of mercury through hair sample analysis. This study will potentially aid future decisions made on the national, provincial and municipal government levels.

This study is national in scope and will provide important information about contaminants.

  • Resolution 30/2007, First Nations Food Safety Research Study, unanimously passed by the Chiefs in Assembly, supports a research study on traditional food safety and First Nations’ health.
  • This research is a collaborative effort between the AFN, the University of Northern British Columbia and the University of Montreal. The project is funded by Health Canada who has also contributed in-kind expertise and resources.
  • The goals of this research include: addressing the environmental concerns of First Nations’ regarding the safety and security of their traditional food sources.
  • Information obtained from this project will help develop plans for protecting traditional food systems and promoting well-being and healthy lifestyles.
  • This is a 10-year national study to be implemented in 100 First Nations communities across Canada. It is currently in its fourth year of implementation.
    • The first Regional Report, Results from British Columbia was released on March 3, 2011 at the First Nations Summit in Vancouver, BC.
  • The results for BC indicate that traditional foods are safe to eat and BC First Nations are healthier when they eat traditional foods but serious problems remain with excess body weight and food security. Trace metal levels in drinking water are overall satisfactory, but continued close monitoring is needed. Mercury exposure is not a health concern.

ESU Resources:

FNFNES Study Results BC

FNFNES Study Results Manitoba

For more information about the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study please visit the official website:

>Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Cultural Expressions

The protection of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) is of the utmost importance to the AFN. First Nations’ have countless layers of intricate traditional knowledge, much of which is unique to each group. ATK is passed along from person to person and it is rich in innovation, grounded in First Nation science, and is based on hundreds of years of observation.
Current intellectual property laws have created the conditions in which ATK is misused, misappropriated and stolen by outsiders, researchers, companies, and others. The ESU is involved in a number initiatives, both domestically and internationally, that seeks to reform intellectual property laws to make them conform to customary systems of ownership. The ESU seeks changes in the international regimes to ensure ATK continues to provide a framework for ongoing retention of culture, livelihoods and transmission of knowledge to the youth and future generations.

Traditional Knowledge


Historically, waste presented little difficulty for First Nations as they relied on natural materials that were easily disposed of and naturally recycled back into the environment. The nature of waste has changed significantly, however, and now presents many challenges in some First Nations communities. Inadequate long-term and short-term funding to operate well-managed landfill sites and transfer stations poses considerable risks in some First Nations communities.

There are many considerations and challenges that present themselves to First Nation communities when dealing with waste disposal, these include: water contamination, poor air quality, and insufficient capacity.

Awareness building within communities is needed to curb the continued creation of large amounts of waste. Changing the way that we think about waste is a step towards reducing it.

  • Establishing composting and recycling programs can minimize the amount of waste in landfills, resulting in healthier environments for communities.
  • A well managed landfill is critical to protecting the community from exposure to toxic chemicals. The development of a waste management plan or an operational plan can help to reduce environmental and health risks to the community and Mother Earth.

Limited funding is available from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) through the First Nation Infrastructure Fund. In order to access these funds, First Nations communities are required to submit an application form, including their project proposal by September of each year, from 2007 to 2011.

More information on how to access the First Nation Infrastructure Fund can be found at http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ih/ci/fni-eng.asp

ESU Resources:

Fact Sheet on Landfill Wastes


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Environmental Stewardship Homepage

The First Nations Environmental Health Innovation Network (FNEHIN) is a national network that aims to link First Nations’ communities and organisations with practical environmental health information, tools and environmental health researchers. The ultimate goal of FNEHIN is to assist First Nations in identifying, researching and solving Environmental Health problems by providing relevant information and supporting partnerships in a network approach that builds capacity, strengthens institutions and promotes self-reliance.

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Angie TurnerHonouring Earth