On the hunt for healthy food in Nunavut

On a cool afternoon in Iqaluit, a long line of residents forms in a school parking lot. They are here for the chance to get picnic food: seal, muktuk (whale meat), tuktu (caribou), muskox, char, and shrimp, to take back to their families. The draw is an event held by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association as part of their annual general meetings. QIA compensates hunters across the territory for collecting bushmeat, which is then given to residents for free.

In northern Canada, breakfast, lunch or dinner are not guaranteed, and access to affordable, nutritious food is considered a health crisis among Inuit. A 2020 report by Statistics Canada found that 57% of people living in Nunavut were food insecure in 2017-18, meaning they did not have consistent access, whether for affordability or other reasons, to nutritious food to meet their needs. dietary needs.

Residents of Iqaluit line up in a school parking lot to receive picnic food: muktuk (whale meat), seal, tuktu (caribou), shrimp, char and muskox, at a giveaway event organized by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

For the Inuit, this can also mean a lack of access to “food from the countryside that is fundamental to our culture and way of life,” according to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), an organization that represents Inuit in Canada. And residents, territorial governments and nonprofit organizations say that programs aimed at addressing food insecurity in the territory must invest more in local production and culturally appropriate food programs.

High grocery prices in Nunavut are well documented: a package of bacon can cost as much as $18, three fresh bell peppers can cost $22, and a 500-milliliter bottle of iced tea can cost $17. grocery stores is mainly due to the high costs of shipping products to remote communities that do not have road access. The primary means of lowering prices is through government subsidies: programs like the federally funded Nutrition North help lower the costs of certain staple foods, including bread, milk and frozen fruit.

A boy rides a bicycle through the streets of Pangnirtung, a village located about 300 kilometers north of Iqaluit.

In recent years, another approach has been to increase the amount of local produce. Pilot projects for greenhouses, hydroponics and community gardens have been developed throughout northern Canada with funding from the federal and territorial governments. In Gjoa Haven, for example, makeshift hydroponic “pods” housed inside three small shipping containers employ a handful of Inuit gardeners who grow vegetables and fruit year-round. The program, called the Nuarvik project, is a partnership between the Gjoa Haven community, the Arctic Research Foundation, Agri-Food Canada, the National Research Council and the Canadian Space Agency.

Critics, however, say such investments, while well-intentioned, are often organized by outsiders who ignore the importance of wildlife and game in Inuit food systems.

A Statistics Canada report found that 57 percent of people living in Nunavut in 2017-18 were food insecure. In the small communities of Pangnirtung and Kimmirut, residents can buy groceries and supplies at a Co-op store (left) or the North Store (right).

“Greenhouses and gardens just don’t work up north,” says Steve Ellis, north director for MakeWay, a nongovernmental organization that funds food sovereignty and conservation programs in Nunavut. “The soil is poor, the growing season is short, but most importantly, they are culturally inappropriate. People want the means to find the food they have always lived on.”

In a 2021 food strategy paper published by ITK, the authors acknowledged the benefits of greenhouses, saying “locally produced food can improve access to fresh, nutrient-rich food.” But he also highlights the importance of the country’s food crops, explaining that they account for up to 52 percent of the protein the Nunavummiut consume, along with significant proportions of micronutrients such as iron, niacin and vitamin D.

The most pressing problem for organizations like MakeWay and ITK is that picnicking is an overlooked and underfunded aspect of the overall food security system in the North. It is not integrated into the supply chains of the major food retailers in the communities, nor is it supported by the necessary infrastructure.

But, similar to the food giveaway in Iqaluit, various communities are doing their best to ensure that culturally appropriate food is more widely available.

Outside the non-profit Hunters and Trappers Association building in Pangnirtung, located about 300 kilometers north of Iqaluit, staff and volunteers hand out food to residents from the countryside harvested by local hunters and fishermen. It is an opportunity for the association to provide bushmeat to the community while employing local collectors.

“We hire hunters to go out and bring meat for the community,” says Kelly Karpik, a Pangnirtung village councilor and one of the people who distributes the meat. “In this way, our hunters are paid a fair wage for their work and families receive free, healthy picnics.”

On the Clyde River, halfway up the east coast of Baffin Island, the Ittaq Heritage and Research Center has several programs that aim to “restore hunting as an essential service.” Experienced hunters take other residents to the land and ice to teach them the proper techniques for gathering animals, cleaning, storing, preserving, and cooking. Similarly, the Aqqiumavvik Welfare Society in Arviat, further south on the mainland, has a Young Hunters program that trains youth on how to properly harvest bushmeat using traditional knowledge and Inuit protocols.

The practice of sharing food is deeply rooted in Inuit culture. Back on Baffin Island, a group of hunters in Kimmirut in the south divvy up beluga meat among themselves, but most of it goes to families and community elders.

Elder Sandy Akavak slices and stores beluga whale meat at his home in Kimmirut.

“If you haven’t had it before or haven’t had it in a long time, you can’t eat too much because you’ll get sick,” says elder Joe Akavak, who would still be hunting if he could. He reaches into a large plastic container and pulls out a square piece of beluga, cutting it into smaller cubes. He cuts off a large piece for himself. “I can eat a lot though, I grew up with this stuff.”

The only for-profit retailer in the territory selling the bounty of such crops is the Nunavut Country Food Store in Iqaluit. Joe Hess, co-owner and manager of the store since 2013, buys bushmeat from hunters in Nunavut and employs six Inuit to butcher and package it.

“The cost of keeping this business running is huge, but it’s a much-needed store that’s great for the community,” he says.

The Nunavut Picnic Store in Iqaluit sells the largest amount of picnic food in the territory. Co-owned by Joe Hess (above), it buys wild meat from Nunavut hunters and employs six Inuit to butcher and bag everything.

Iqaluit residents have mixed opinions. Some are happy to pay for meat they might not otherwise get themselves; others believe it is unethical to sell peasant food for profit.

Not far from the Nunavut Country Food Store is the Qajuqturvik Community Food Center. Executive Director Rachel Blais says staff and volunteers offer a variety of initiatives that help residents deal with challenges related to food sovereignty and insecurity, from cooking classes to helping them navigate government food programs. For more immediate needs, Qajuqturvik offers a daily lunch serving more than 150 meals a day, five days a week.

The center has big plans to expand its more culturally appropriate offerings.

“We are slowly increasing the amount of picnic we use,” adds Ms Blais. ”Right now, our goal is for 50 percent of the meat products we are using to be food from the farm. But we hope to continue to expand on that until we use 100 percent country food in our meals and are otherwise vegetarian.”

Based in Yellowknife, photographer Pat Kane takes a documentary approach to his stories that focus on northern Canada. Mr. Kane identifies as indigenous/mixed settler and is a proud Algonquin Anishinaabe member of the Timiskaming First Nation in Quebec. He is a National Geographic Explorer and a beneficiary of the Trebek initiative.

If you have information to help inform The Globe’s report on Nunavut, please email [email protected]

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