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Affordable and nutritious food is hard to find in Canada’s North. A return to traditional hunted meat could be the solution

On a crisp afternoon in Iqaluit, a long line of residents forms in a school parking lot. They’re here for a chance to get country food – seal, muktuk (whale meat), tuktu (caribou), muskox, char and shrimp – to take home to their families. The giveaway is an event held by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association as part of their annual general meetings. Hunters from across the territory are compensated by QIA for harvesting wild meat, which is then given out to residents free of charge.

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

Iqaluit residents line up in a school parking lot for country food – muktuk (whale meat), seal, tuktu (caribou), shrimp, char and muskox – at a giveaway event held by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

For Inuit, this can also mean a lack of access to “country foods from the land which are central to our culture and way of life,” according to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), an organization representing Inuit in Canada. And residents, territorial governments and non-profit organizations say that programs meant to address food insecurity in the territory need to invest more in local production and culturally appropriate food programs.

The high prices of groceries in Nunavut are well documented: A pack of bacon can cost as much as $18, three fresh peppers can go for $22 and a 500-millilitre bottle of iced tea might ring in at $17. The sticker shock at grocery stores is mainly owing to the high costs of shipping goods to remote communities that do not have highway access. The primary means of reducing prices is through government subsidies: Programs such as the federally funded Nutrition North help lower the costs of certain staples, including bread, milk and frozen fruit.

A boy rides a bike through the streets of Pangnirtung, a hamlet located about 300 kilometres 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 across Northern Canada with funding from federal and territorial governments. In Gjoa Haven, for example, makeshift hydroponic “pods” located inside of 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 community of Gjoa Haven, the Arctic Research Foundation, Agri-Food Canada, the National Research Council and the Canadian Space Agency.

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

A report by Statistics Canada found that 57 per cent 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 Northern Store (right).

“Greenhouses and gardens simply don’t work in the North,” says Steve Ellis, the Northern director of MakeWay, a non-governmental organization that funds conservation and food sovereignty programs across Nunavut. “The soil is poor, the growing season is short, but most importantly, they are culturally inappropriate. People want the means to hunt for the food they’ve always lived on.”

In a 2021 food strategy paper published by ITK, the authors recognized the benefits of greenhouses, saying that “locally produced food can improve access to fresh, nutrient-dense food.” But it also highlights the importance of country food harvests, explaining that they make up to 52 per cent of the protein Nunavummiut consume, along with significant proportions of micronutrients such as iron, niacin and vitamin D.

Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley, the executive director of Pairijait Tigumivik, an elder’s society in Iqaluit, looks for berries outside of her office building in Iqaluit.
In her home in Kimmirut, Simata Onalik folds laundry as seal pelts dry on her floor. The meat from the seals is used for food, and the pelts for clothing such as mitts, parkas and boots.

The most pressing issue for organizations such as MakeWay and ITK is that country food is an overlooked and underfunded aspect in the overall food security system of the North. It is not integrated into the supply chains of the main food retailers in the communities, or supported with the necessary infrastructure.

But, similar to the food giveaway in Iqaluit, several communities are doing what they can to ensure culturally appropriate food is more widely available.

Outside of the non-profit Hunters and Trappers Association building in Pangnirtung, located about 300 kilometres north of Iqaluit, staff and volunteers hand out country food harvested by local hunters and fishers to residents. It is a chance for the association to provide wild meat to the community while at the same time employing local harvesters.

“We hire hunters to go out and they bring back meat for the community,” says Kelly Karpik, a Pangnirtung hamlet councillor and one of the people distributing meat. “This way, our hunters get paid a fair wage for their work and families get free, healthy country food.”

Students from the Pangnirtung grade school and high school take part in the annual spring camp. It’s been part of the community for over 30 years, and gets students out on the land and learn how to snowmobile, fish, hunt, prepare country food and reconnect with Inuit culture.

In Clyde River, midway up Baffin Island’s east coast, the Ittaq Heritage and Research Centre has various programs that aim to “reclaim hunting as an essential service.” Experienced hunters take other residents out on the land and ice to teach them proper techniques in harvesting animals, cleaning, storage, preservation and cooking. Likewise, the Aqqiumavvik Wellness Society in Arviat, further south on the mainland, has a Young Hunters program that trains youth how to properly harvest wild meat using traditional knowledge and Inuit protocols.

The practice of sharing food runs deep in Inuit culture. Back on Baffin Island, a group of hunters in Kimmirut in the south divide beluga meat among themselves, but most is distributed to families and elders in the community.

Elder Sandy Akavak slices and stores beluga whale meat at his home in Kimmirut.
Country food harvests make up to 52 per cent of the protein Nunavummiut consume.

“If you haven’t had it before or you 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 slices a large piece for himself. “I can eat a lot though, I grew up on this stuff.”

The only for-profit retailer in the territory that sells the bounty of such harvests is the Nunavut Country Food Store in Iqaluit. Joe Hess, who has co-owned and operated the shop since 2013, purchases wild meat from hunters across Nunavut and employs six Inuit staff to butcher and package it.

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

The Nunavut Country Food Store in Iqaluit sells the most country food in the territory. Co-owned by Joe Hess, (top), it purchases wild meat from hunters across Nunavut and employs six Inuit staff to butcher and package it all.

Iqaluit residents have mixed opinions. Some are happy to pay for meat they otherwise wouldn’t get themselves; others believe it is unethical to sell country food for a profit.

Not far from the Nunavut Country Food Store is the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre. Executive director Rachel Blais says staff and volunteers offer a variety of initiatives that help residents manage challenges around food sovereignty and insecurity – everything from cooking classes to helping them navigate government food programs. For more immediate needs, Qajuqturvik hosts a daily lunch that serves more than 150 meals a day, five days a week.

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

“We’re slowly increasing the amount of country food that we use,” Ms. Blais adds. ”Right now our goal is 50 per cent of the meat products that we’re using is country food. But we’re hoping to continue to scale that up until we are using 100-per-cent country food in our meals, and otherwise vegetarian.”

In the community of Pangnirtung, the non-profit Hunters and Trappers Association hires local hunters to go out and bring back country food for the community.
At Amittuq Lake near Pangnirtung, students learn how to properly harvest wild meat using traditional knowledge and Inuit protocols at the annual spring camp.

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

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