About 70 per cent of Inuit households in Nunavut are food insecure – meaning the majority cannot obtain an adequate amount of food to meet their caloric and nutrition needs.
No roads connect them to the rest of Canada. They’re spread throughout a territory the size of Western Europe. The cost of food shipment – only possible via air and sea – translates to grocery store prices that are astronomical.
Socio-economic conditions are generally not great. Employment opportunities are sparse. For many quality grocery store food is hardly affordable.
In 2011, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) introduced Nutrition North Canada – a program primarily providing subsidies on grocery store products in order to make healthy foods more accessible and affordable in isolated Northern communities.
But household food insecurity remains chronic.
Traditionally, of course, Inuit have fed themselves living off the land – hunting seal, caribou, narwhal and other wild animals native to the region for subsistence – a food source is known today as ‘country food.’ It’s plentiful but difficult to harvest in great quantities because hunting is actually really expensive.
The means necessary to hunt – snowmobiles, ATVs, boats, gasoline, rifles and ammunition – are too expensive for most to afford and maintain. Financially supporting hunters so that they can hunt more – thereby increasing the supply of country food shared within communities – is one suggested approach to tackling food insecurity. Some say it’s a way to the caloric and nutritional needs of Nunavut’s population at a lesser cost than store bought food. Country food is harvested for personal and family consumption, distributed through community sharing networks – a cultural hallmark – and sometimes sold to market.
The Nunavut Harvester Support Program (NHSP) was established in 1993 by the organization responsible for the Nunavut land claims agreement – now known as Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) – and the Government of the Northwest Territories. It’s Capital Equipment Program provided assistance to harvesters to financing large hunting equipment such as snowmobiles, ATVs, and boats and motors required to travel to hunting grounds and carry on a traditional harvesting lifestyle.
The program was initiated in response to abysmal market prices for ringed seal pelts. For two decades beginning in the 1960s, as Inuit became more integrated into the cash-economy and moved into centralized communities for access to government services, hunters – who were many – made their livelihoods selling the lucrative pelts of seals they hunted to feed themselves, their families and their communities. But the market for sealskins collapsed almost entirely in the 1980s after animal rights activist groups fiercely campaigned for bans on seal products around the world in order to stop the Canadian east coast commercial seal hunt.
With the fur market no longer being a reliable source of income, hunters have struggled covering their basic fees. Yet, hunters serve a vital role in Inuit culture and society – feeding the population.
In 2014, with only $13 million left in the fund, the NHSP was suspended in order to review its objectives and look for ways to promote its financial longevity. The program is “currently in flux,” says Kerry McKluskey, NTI’s director of communications, but NTI has plans to “relaunch” it, she says.
Some of those employed can afford to hunt in their free time, but this doesn’t supply enough country food for their communities, says George Wenzel, a geography professor at McGill University who has spent years collectively with Inuit hunters in Clyde River, Nunavut – a community on the north-east coast of Baffin Island.“The guys with time have no money – the guys with money have very little time,” he says.
“It’s partially at the root of the whole food security issue today, because the best quality food at an affordable price relatively speaking is hunting.”
Support for hunters
Wenzel recommends a federally-funded hunter-support program that would provide money for operational costs to hunters.
Nutrition North Canada does make mention of country food. Country food processed in Nunavut’s two government registered commercial food processing plants is eligible for subsidy.
But barriers to hunting are not addressed. “While the cost of living in the North is high, the Nutrition North Canada program was not designed to be a cost of living subsidy,” AANDC’s Public Affairs team said in a statement.
Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated President Cathy Towtongie told the Canadian Press in 2014 that the federal government should help offset the cost of hunting equipment.
“I believe we should have a program that’s designed for hunters, so they can provide for the community and their families,” she said.
The Action Canada Foundation, a national fellowship program that assembles talented young professionals to examine Canadian issues, published a report titled Hunger in Nunavut: Local Food for Healthier Communities in 2014. The report emphasized increasing the abundance of country food by supporting hunters as a means of tackling food insecurity. “Helping the people of Nunavut access more local food is one way to tackle this problem in a way that is both nutritionally beneficial and culturally appropriate. Contrary to popular belief, a diet based on food harvested locally in Nunavut is nutritionally complete and has significant health benefits,” the report reads.
The Nunavut Food Security Coalition’s Strategy and Action Plan identifies country food as one of its six key themes. It states that “country food has excellent nutritional value, plays a critical role in Inuit culture, and contributes to strong, sustainable, self-reliant communities, ” and recommends supporting harvesters so they can pursue traditional livelihoods
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