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Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott (left) and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor (centre) look on as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) President Natan Obed addresses media in the Foyer outside the House of Commons in Ottawa on Oct.5, 2017.Sean Kilpatrick

Natan Obed is the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization representing Inuit in Canada.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all more acutely aware of just how fragile our food supply chains can be. Yet, for Inuit, it didn’t take COVID-19 for basic grocery items to be priced out of reach, or for store shelves to be laid bare because of supply issues thousands of kilometres away. More than three-quarters of Inuit already experienced some level of food insecurity.

The way food systems function directly contributes to the issue in Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland. Government policies, programs and financial investments have an incredible impact on food availability, cost and choice in our communities. It is with this in mind that Inuit released the Inuit Nunangat Food Security Strategy on Monday to propose targeted solutions for ending hunger and building a sustainable food system. Some of those solutions include supporting Inuit harvesting, knowledge and skills programs that advance the country (hunted or harvested) food economy; addressing transportation and harvesting infrastructure deficits; advancing and implementing comprehensive cost-of-living reduction measures; and the creation of an Inuit Nunangat school food program.

A large part of my role as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami involves helping Canadians understand the transformational change needed to close persistent gaps in social equity. While many Canadians may know about the high cost of food in Inuit Nunangat, the true lived experience of food insecurity is hard for most to truly appreciate. Hunger is a profoundly complex and personal issue. It has an impact on an individual’s overall health and well-being, and chronic hunger has lifelong effects on individuals, our health care system and our society as a whole.

In Inuit Nunangat, fresh food must be flown thousands of kilometres from southern cities. Planes must be specially configured to carry both passengers and freight and can only carry limited payloads in communities with short Second World War-era gravel airstrips.

Bulk shipments of non-perishable foods and fuel must provide the needs of an entire community for a year – an enormous responsibility for those planning and paying for these orders. Most ships that carry this annual resupply originate in the Montreal area and travel thousands of kilometres north, two to three times a year depending on ice conditions. Then, the work begins in off-loading cargo in dangerous conditions, often from barges, as docking facilities are non-existent in all but a few of our 51 communities.

Country food is the preferred diet for Inuit, but while Inuit are among the most experienced hunters, trappers and fishers on Earth, many cannot afford the fuel and equipment needed to harvest the nutritious foods found in our own land. Addressing this precarious situation means developing a food system that truly reflects the needs and strengths of Inuit society.

Evidence has shown that food-insecure families purchased more food when they received modest pandemic-related boosts in income or when temporary increases in subsidy rates decreased the cost of some food items. This should not come as a surprise. We know that the food purchasing power of Inuit is substantively less than most Canadians. When individuals are equipped with real choices to buy affordable nutritious food, positive changes can happen quickly.

Throughout this pandemic, Inuit land claims organizations have worked with government to directly influence the allocation of COVID-19 community support funding, producing better outcomes than when government acts alone. Governments can take action to end this crisis by partnering with Inuit and supporting, on a continuing basis, the harvesting activities, wildlife-management decision making, food transportation regulation and regional food production that will produce strong long-term results.

It will take comprehensive action to overcome the multiple factors that drive Inuit food insecurity, which also include poverty, the high cost of living, low incomes, climate change and infrastructure deficits. But we know that it is possible – and within our grasp – to build a food system that is resilient, sustainable and supported by Inuit-driven solutions.

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