Hunting for solutions to the Nunavut food-cost crisis

| February 24, 2015
Photo: flickr/creative commons

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In late 2014, Nunavut's supermarket's prices spiked, garnering national attention for the fifth time since 2013. 

Photos of sky high price tags, buoyed by the Feeding My Family Facebook campaign, surged across social networks and were shared widely.

Campaigns such as Helping our Northern Neighbours emerged in reply, and crowd-funded donations ballooned across the country in step with the stark real-time diaries of the daily struggle to afford basic goods in Nunavut. 

"There seems to be a lot more understanding of what is happening in the North," says Leesee Papatsie, founder of Feeding My Family.

Papatsie has been a prominent face in the everyday fight to feed families, a tireless advocate of policy reform and corporate responsibility

"We need to look harder at supporting our own food culture, too," she cautions, and also tells supporters that imported food and policy cannot solve food security issues alone.

Restoring the foundation of country food

"We really need more culturally relevant food," says Papatsie, "we need accessible country food, which is far healthier."

Country food -- which signifies traditional Inuit food -- has remained in the media shadows amidst the spotlight on store food prices and policy. Papatsie outlines that sustainable initiatives are a vital part of food security in a wider context. 

"The EU ban on seal hunting and the [proposed U.S. ban] on polar bear and narwhale [hunting]... those had a real effect," says Papatsie. "Those are about hunting and supporting Inuit culture. The hunters were able to make money off it."

Jorgan Aitaok, a hunter from Cambridge Bay who teaches traditional seal hunting to high school students, agrees.

"Anti-hunting, animal-loving groups come in without a clue as to what is happening in the North," he says, "They come in blindly, and say, 'this is how to manage your animals/land,' without even asking the people of the land."

Though Aitaok primarily hunts caribou and muskox today, he sometimes applies for a (single) yearly polar bear quota, and has experience hunting geese, wolf and ducks.

The seal hunting ban, though just one of many issues faced by hunters, is indicative of the overlapping factors -- like global politics and supply chain -- threatening country food politics.

Nunavut's first-ever Food Security Strategy and Action Plan -- the product of the Nunavut Food Security Coalition -- supports restoring country food and classifies it as "foundational" and an essential pillar of the secure right to food of Nunavummiut.

The obstacles to country food are vast and need to be taken into account.

"Living off the land and providing country food, is hard work and can be expensive," says Aitaok. "Most times you're not successful and come home empty, so fuel and oil is expensive, wear and tear on the machine, your time, your energy."

Aitaok points to one effective initiative: the community hunt. Organized by the Hunter's & Trapper's Organization in Cambridge Bay and aided by the Harvester Support Program, the activity enables harvesters by subsidizing gas, repairs and other supplies, while ensuring harvest is distributed to the community.

Harvester support has proven to fill hunting skills gaps, and wider community solidarity, as seen in a case study of Repulse Bay's community feast.

If the grants help distribute harvest to groups such as "Elders and single parents" according to Aitaok, its value could be maximized: "With more, they could donate country food to the Food Bank/Wellness Centre, and to the low income. If the federal government provided that type of funding, I'm sure they would tap into that. Yet that is not the case."

Other programs, like the Country Food Distribution Program, in turn subsidize freezers, markets and other community-based infrastructure.

The Harvester Support Program is currently paused by the Nunavut Tunngavik for a review -- in part, to ensure its own sustainable future -- yet it nonetheless stands as a tested model for sustainably and increasing access to country food.

Closing food skills gaps

According to a recent study by Action Canada, "younger generations lack the knowledge of their grandparents, and have fewer learning opportunities."

Aitaok agrees: "Many [18-25 year olds] lack knowledge of how to hunt or where to hunt and fish for the animals. Then when they go out, they don't take back all of the animal, or sometimes they get lost."

Having a "flexibility of skills" can be a great long-term security measure especially because of the different wildlife available in each community.

"One community may have more seal, one community may have more muskox, one community may have more migratory birds," says Papatsie.

Family is the source of this education, Aitaok says. "For the younger generation, if your parents don't hunt or fish then the art is not passed down." One group trying to change this is the Arviat Young Hunters Club, which pairs kids lacking access to the land with community members.

Skills gaps go beyond hunting, however, and apply equally to storage, preparation and consumption.

"We have concerns that Nunavummiut are not learning or using the skills they need to make good choices," states the Food Security Strategy, adding that these apply equally to "store-bought food."

There is a focus on curricular reform with the Coalition planning to revive home-ec in classrooms, offer targeted adult education and promote intergeneratonal literacy. Programs like Isuma TV, which offers audio-visual resources on food practices, also promote food skills.

"We need more cooking classes and more understanding of dietary nutrition," urges Papatsie.

So far, community-based, grassroots initiatives have proven to be the most effective at addressing this problem.

"Food is so expensive here, whether it's acquired through hunting or from the store," says Kerry McCluskey a parent at Nanook School who founded a cooking club. "If a kid can learn to make things from scratch, money goes so much further than it does by buying prepared foods."

While students learned staples like quiche and meatballs, they also cooked dinner at a soup kitchen and fed their families at holiday feasts.

"It boosts self-esteem in children," says McCluskey, who collaborates with school employee Kootoo Alainga and June Shappa in offering the program.

And, because kids eat at the class, children from food-insecure homes also get a guaranteed meal, which goes a long way.

For McCluskey, cooking is at the core of food sovereignty, especially for the next generation.

"If we teach children the basics of healthy shopping and food preparation, they will form these habits for the rest of their lives, eventually passing these skills onto their own children."

Though initiatives like these are only samples of a wider strategy at play, they indicate how positive strides have long been underway.

"In the end," says Papatsie, "it's all about raising awareness of what's happening in the North."


Joshua Davidson is a food writer and digital communications consultant based in Montréal. He has worked in community agriculture, media and education, and currently writes a column on food issues for Forget the Box. 



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