Healthy Living in the North

Healthy eating is more than just the food

Oolichan drying in the wind

Oolichan fish drying in the wind. Historically, oolichan, known as the candle fish, were prized for their oil and were one of the most valued trade items, and are a key component to traditional food.

Sometimes in the work I do, I never quite know what to expect or where I’ll end up. Last week I called Florence, one of the cultural community health representatives in the Nass Valley who is very passionate about her work caring for the elders and creating greater food security in her community. I wanted to know a little more about the oolichan fish run that is happening right about now and she offered to take me to some of the camps to see what it is all about for myself. I admit that I was super excited to go, but hesitated for a brief moment because I still remember the last time I went out with her; I fell in a bog while picking Tiim laxlax’u (aka Labrador tea). Still, eager for the opportunity to get away from my desk, I accepted her offer.

Usually the oolichan are ready for harvesting right after Hobiyee, the celebration of the Nisga’a New Year. The story of Hobiyee is that during the celebrations they look at the moon and if it is facing upwards, similar to the shape of the bowl of wooden spoon, called a Hoobix, it means there will be plenty of traditional foods available to the people in the Nass Valley.

Oolichan is important to the people of the Nass Valley because it’s the first fish to come after the long winter, which is a time when most of the food put by for the winter is almost gone. Oolichan then fills the gap as a source of food fish until the salmon and other fish, berries and wild game are available in the summer months. Oolichan is also preserved by drying in the sun and wind, smoking or rendering for grease.

Most of us know that access to traditional food increases food security in Aboriginal communities and contributes to the overall health of individuals, their families and the communities that they live in. This is true – traditional food is packed full of nutrition. These foods are key sources of protein, essential fatty acids, iron, calcium and vitamin D, zinc, fibre and antioxidants, all of which are known prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, anemia, obesity, and, importantly, they are naturally low in salt, saturated fat and sugar.

But that’s not all of it. Satisfying immediate hunger needs and improving physical health is only part of it. The whole process of gathering, preserving and sharing the food is just as important because it contributes to spiritual and emotional well-being through the social and cultural connections that are strengthened through these traditions. In other words, traditional foods have both nutritional and cultural significance, and that’s what the oolichan run is all about. I saw this first-hand on my outing with Florence. The oolichan were not out yet, but there were men setting up the camps, where they will stay for the next two months harvesting the fish. They will then distribute the harvest to their various family networks that will process and preserve the fish and share it further within their communities. I know Florence will go down with her young grandchild and harvest and process some of her own and share it among the elders that she cares for.

I didn’t fall in a bog this time, but I did gain a greater perspective of food security in Aboriginal communities and saw how access to traditional foods improves health and well-being. How does healthy eating contribute to your overall health?

[Editor’s note:  This is a great example of what the key message “Healthy eating supports healthy individuals, families and communities” means to Beth. Tell us what it means to you! Visit our Picture YOU Healthy contest page for more details on your chance to win!]

Beth Evans

About Beth Evans

As a registered dietitian, Beth is dedicated to helping individuals, families and communities make the healthiest choices available to them, and enjoy eating well based on their unique realities and nutrition needs. Juggling work and a very busy family life, Beth is grateful for the time she spends with her family enjoying family meals, long walks and bike rides. She also loves the quiet times exploring in her garden, experimenting in the kitchen, and practicing yoga and meditation.