Forest and freshwater foods — such as blueberries, mushrooms, tea, wild rice, fiddleheads, medicinal plants, wild fish and game — have been integral to the Northwestern Ontario food system for thousands of years. The activities involved in procuring forest and freshwater foods promote physical activity and maintain cultural traditions and connections with the natural environment.
Prior to European settlement Indigenous peoples lived in balance with the natural world, meaning there was a deep metaphysical connection with the forest and its freshwater foods, Indigenous people still possess this traditional ecological knowledge that enables them to live in balance with the natural world. The knowledge that Indigenous peoples held of forest and freshwater foods was shared with the European settlers which was integral to their survival. Today, both Indigenous and settler peoples continue to depend on local forests and freshwaters for food; hunting, fishing and gathering remain an important part of northern culture. Forest and freshwater foods offer opportunities to work with nature, protect ecosystems, increase Indigenous food sovereignty, and support people’s livelihoods.
Despite the importance of forest and freshwater foods to our food system, there are significant challenges to the integrity of this food source. For example, industrial development has negatively impacted fish and wildlife habitats while urban, suburban and rural development encroaches on forests, rivers, and other productive spaces.
Harvesting foods can contribute to a healthy and active lifestyle, foster a stronger connection to nature, maintain cultural traditions, and support intergenerational relationships. Practicing personal harvesting of forest and freshwater foods often comes at a lower cost than store-bought food, particularly for plant and mushroom foraging. Communities in the Thunder Bay Area live in an eco-zone that hosts a high diversity of plants and animals, many of which can be used for food.
Protecting and promoting forest and freshwater food systems can contribute to overall ecosystem health by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving resilience in the face of climate change. The health of forest and freshwater food systems is also a good indicator of the ecological integrity of ecosystems overall. For these reasons, it is imperative to protect boreal forests and watersheds, as these ecosystems are the basis for hunting, fishing and gathering activities.
Nationally and provincially, there is increased demand for forest and freshwater foods. Within the Thunder Bay Area, forest and freshwater foods are harvested in parks, green spaces, and other public and private spaces. Forest and freshwater foods can be found for sale at local farmers’ markets, grocery stores, restaurants, and road-side vendors.
Commercially, forest and freshwater foods present opportunities for high value foods and value-added products. The potential of this industry is great and is evidenced by the success of forest and freshwater foods sectors in other provinces (BC and Quebec most notably). There is likely limited potential for commercial development on lands within the Thunder Bay Area because rural, suburban, and urban development affects the ecology of otherwise productive areas (e.g., forests, lakes, rivers). In terms of commercial opportunities, the Thunder Bay Area population still presents a significant market for commercial producers of forest and freshwater foods, as well as throughout Northwestern Ontario. Seizing this opportunity will be advantageous to ensuring a more resilient food system within the region.