Most winters, at least once a week, Mike Diabo will snowmobile to the shores of one of his favourite local lakes in western Quebec, carry his fishing gear across the frozen surface and drill down through the ice to reveal the dark water beneath.
There he’ll fish for northern pike, bass, trout, and whitefish to supplement his family’s diet, continuing the traditions of his Algonquin ancestors.
This year isn’t like most winters.
Ice fishing season started late, delayed by a warm winter and fluctuating temperatures that left the ice on Bitobi and Cedar lakes slushy and dangerously thin until a cold snap finally arrived in early February.
Because of climate change, yearly annual temperatures in the region and across Canada have trended up for decades. This winter is one of the warmest in decades in Ottawa, about 110 kilometres south of Diabo’s home in Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg First Nation.
Diabo, 46, blames climate change for the unseasonal weather and he worries ice fishing season will only get shorter in the future. He’s only been fishing four times so far this winter — usually he would start no later than early January.
The thin ice has deprived his family of an important part of their diet and a practice that roots them to their cultural heritage and territory around the broader area of the Kichi Sibi, or what later became known as the Ottawa River.
Climate change and food security
The limited fishing opportunities also underscore the risk climate change presents to many First Nations that rely on hunting, fishing and foraging to help boost their nutrition and combat food insecurity.
“We’re not getting the consistent number of days that are well below zero for the lake to freeze over,” said Diabo, a father of five who is on paternity leave from his teaching job.
“We should have got what we have now more than a month ago. Being able to get out there and safely fish and travel around on the water systems and hunt, it’s all been pushed back.”
Food insecurity among Indigenous people living on reserves is four times the Canadian average, according to a First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study published in 2021.
Although traditional food generally makes up only a small part of Indigenous diets, it tends to be a main source of key nutrients like iron and zinc, said Malek Batal, a nutrition professor at the Université de Montréal.
“People tell us across the board they would like more traditional food but there are barriers, and one of them is climate change,” Batal said.
“The animals are not behaving the way they used to, the seasons are shorter, there’s a decline in the number of animals and fish.”
Local moose herds, another important food source for the Algonquin, are already in decline due to logging, mining and sports hunting.
Families in communities such as Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg wind up spending more in grocery stores to supplement their diet.
Diabo said the fluctuating temperatures and occasional days of rain were making the ice less safe. Rabbit trapping with his two middle children has been put on hold because of less snow than usual.
Late, mild winters shorten the window of time for his children to develop the land literacy that Indigenous people have handed down through generations, he said: knowing how to read the ice and tracks in the snow, how to set snares, and understand how different species react to seasonal weather patterns.
“The opportunities to be transmitting things like legacy and tradition and really important land-based skills that are key to our identity are missed.”