Features | Food for the North

Indigenous people in Northern Canada face severe food insecurity

Canada hides under a blanket of good marketing and public relations that actively cover up the various human rights abuses undertaken by the federal government. Especially when it comes to the treatment of the Indigenous people whose land it has stolen, the Canadian government has a lot to learn – as can be seen by the little to no regard paid to the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada. The Canadian government’s historical treatment of Indigenous people has been abhorrent, be it through the mass exploitation of unceded Indigenous land, forced assimilation, residential schools, etcetera. But another issue – one that many people in the Canadian South might not be familiar with, due to the difference in infrastructure and living conditions – is the disproportionately high and continuously increasing level of food insecurity among Indigenous communities in the North, which mostly affects Inuit.

Experiences with food insecurity
Claire*, a single mother of two, lives in a 400-person community in northern Nunavut, and shared her experience of facing challenges to acquire fresh and affordable food with The Daily. “I mostly try and eat country food [items in the traditional diet of Inuit and other Indigenous people in northern Canada, such as caribou, fish, or whales], but my children love to eat store-bought food. So I try to buy store food. There are hot dogs, flour, cereal, lard, milk, [and] bread [at the store]. We always run out of bread and milk and other things. There are hardly any fresh fruits and vegetables here, when they finally come in from Churchill, Manitoba, the [transportation company] lets them sit outside in winter. By the time they get up North, they are frozen [and/or spoiled], and still they are so expensive. So we hardly get a choice of vegetables and fruits.”

“I grew up in the North so there were times when we weren’t starving, but we were hungry as kids,” Leesee Papatsie said in a phone interview with The Daily. Papatsie is one of the founders of Feeding My Family, an organization that started by establishing a Facebook group for people in remote Canadian areas to communicate and organize around the excessively high food prices in Northern regions, especially in Nunavut. The Facebook group allows people to share information and to coordinate dialogue and action, but also to create a coherent institutional memory of food prices, as members will share pictures and posts about food prices in their area.

The compiled images of overpriced items and the large number of people in the group talking about their experiences paint a picture of the lack of food security in Canada. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” This includes access to culturally relevant foods (food items that might be specifically desired within a certain cultural group), and the ability to make these choices appropriate to dietary needs and personal preferences.

In Canada in 2011, an estimated 12.2 per cent of households experienced some extent of food insecurity, as stated by PROOF, an interdisciplinary, internationally-based group of food security policy researchers. This was a significant increase from the 11.3 per cent of households in 2007. Moreover, according to the Council of Canadian Academies, “Food insecurity presents a serious and growing challenge in Canada’s northern and remote Aboriginal communities. In 2011, off-reserve Aboriginal households in Canada were about twice as likely as other Canadian households to be food insecure.” It is therefore clear that the experiences of Claire and Papatsie are part of a larger, more systemic problem with food insecurity in Canada.

Causes of food insecurity
Canada faces some specific issues in terms of geographic location, climate, and low population density, with settlements spread far across the country. Due to these circumstances, transport of food and other items into Northern communities is difficult. Papatsie emphasized that the issue is much more severe in smaller, more remote communities. “In smaller communities it’s still quite common to see [expired] food. Part of it too is that the stores have to buy their food and their dried goods once a year, and have them brought in by ship or barge in the summertime.” Being able to order food only once a year, due to climatic conditions and immensely expensive transport, leaves people in these regions often without an efficient food system.

George Wenzel, a professor at McGill’s geography department, has been working with Inuit people for over forty years. In an interview with The Daily, Wenzel explained that only a very small number of people and businesses are actually involved in the process of getting food into the North. “It’s a monopoly situation, at the retail end, at the transportation end. There are only two airlines going up into the North, and only one of them really services most of the communities.” According to a fact sheet compiled by Feeding My Family, two main retailers hold a virtual duopoly in the North: Arctic Co-operatives and the North West Company. In addition, many communities only have one or two stores, which control a large amount of the prices. Feeding My Family states that food prices in Nunavut are about 140 per cent higher than in the rest of Canada, while the revenue is much lower than the Canadian average. To Claire, these are familiar issues. “We [have to] to go out and buy things [quickly], because they always run out of things, like milk products, really fast. But then I get $600 a month, and the $600 I spend is three days worth of food. And we’re out of food already. […] It makes me feel sad. The kids are hungry.”

Papatsie explained that this is not the same for all communities. “We’re pretty lucky with that because we have different stores, [but still] with the food pricing we can spend anywhere between $500 to $600 per week on food, and that takes a big dent on your paycheck. But we’re lucky because we work, both my husband and I, but for people who don’t have proper employment, they’re the ones that have a hard time. Some people struggle from meal to meal sometimes.”

Wenzel thinks that the blame for this issue should not be placed on the business owners alone. “The business of business is profit. The higher the profit the better the business. […] Their job is to sell things and maximize profit; I certainly don’t condone it. If there was more competition there would be a difference, but not that much of a difference.” While more competition could help in bringing prices down and move against the monopoly situation that is prevalent in many regions in the North, it still wouldn’t present a solution to the initial problem, which is the reliance on subsidies. The introduction of capitalism in these regions left wounds that are still not healing. When profit is valued higher than human rights, it opens the way to exploitation and oppression, as was the case during the colonial period.

“Inuit were pretty good living off of the land before settling into communities. Back then, the federal government promised the Inuit that they would get their free education, free housing, and that they would not have to worry about hunger anymore.” –Leesee Papatsie, Founder of Feeding My Family

In the 1950s, the Canadian government began centralizing Indigenous communities under the pretense of bringing them similar services as in southern Canada, such as healthcare and education. However, the result of this was the displacement of Indigenous people, resettlement into communities that were more manageable for the Western colonizers, and forced introduction to Western ideas at the expense of Indigenous culture. The latter took place in residential schools, in which thousands of Indigenous people were physically and psychologically abused, until the schools were closed in 1996. Even now, colonial power structures still exist and are clearly visible in the much smaller percentage of money allocated toward Indigenous schools, compared to public schools, the lower quality of healthcare provided to Indigenous communities, and continuous disrespect of Indigenous land by the Canadian government.

Wenzel highlighted that another part of this colonial legacy was established within food security. “When you brought together what had been, let’s say, a population dispersed in eight communities into one place, it meant you had a higher density of hunters and that meant you began to have a problem with local populations of animals.” Papatsie emphasized that “[the legacy of colonialism] still has an effect today among the Inuit. You know, the federal government basically wanted the Inuit to live in communities, their main reason was so that there’s no starvation. But Inuit were pretty good living off of the land before settling into communities. Back then, the federal government promised the Inuit that they would get their free education, free housing, and that they would not have to worry about hunger anymore.”

In retrospect, the disaster the Canadian-imposed school systems inflicted is very clear, as is the evidence that the Canadian government did not keep its promise of providing food security. Even more than that, by rounding people up together, many lost their livelihood and are in a constant state of unemployment. Claire’s community consists about 400 people, slowly growing. She says, “There is no employment, but there is some construction going on finally. So there is a bit of work for a few months. There are a lot of people who always get hungry and we have to give ourselves assistance.” Wenzel highlights another problem with unemployment in the region. “Money is such a scarce resource, you have an incipient two-class society. People with regular jobs who get reasonable pay, and a larger group of people [who] live on transfer payments, like family allowance, welfare, social assistance, pensions, and so on, which is not a lot of money given the relative cost [of living].”

Failed government initiatives
The colonial legacy of Canada is responsible for many, if not most, of the issues Indigenous people are facing today. The Canadian government tried to take some responsibility by establishing subsidy programs such as the Nutrition North program in 2011. This federal freight subsidy program, which replaced the Food Mail program, has a fund of more than $60 million, and is supposed to subsidize selected food items in specific Northern communities. Food Mail used to subsidize the transport of the food; however, only certain companies were subsidized, which meant that the consumer did not necessarily see a benefit. The new Nutrition North program subsidizes the retailers so that prices at which the retailers sell their produce will change. According to CBC, however, many retailers are making profit from the subsidies rather than using them to make the products more affordable. This comes as no surprise as five out of the six members of the Nutrition North advisory are Conservative donors, as stated by the CBC, with “at least three board members [who] appear to be involved with organizations or businesses that have received federal government funding, either directly or indirectly.”

Tracey Galloway, an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of Manitoba, recently published a report called “Nutrition North Canada retail subsidy program meeting the goal of making nutritious and perishable food more accessible and affordable in the North?” in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, claiming that there is “little evidence that Nutrition North is meeting its goal of improving the availability and affordability of nutritious food.” Galloway told the Globe and Mail that “there were two significant issues: first, a lack of transparency in how the subsidy rates for each community [are] determined – what information is collected, how often is that information re-evaluated, how the subsidy level is actually calculated for each community. […] Second, there’s a lack of accountability for demonstrating just how the value of the subsidy is passed on to consumers in the form of lower retail pricing.” Both Claire and Papatsie describe the program as ineffective. Claire says that she didn’t see any decrease in grocery prices in the last three years.

Many Inuit and others affected by the high food prices were getting more and more distressed with outrageous situations, in which people had to pay $28 for a head of cabbage, or $99 for a whole fish, according to Feeding My Family. Papatsie was involved in the organization of protests against the lack of support and accountability of the government in food matters. She told The Daily, “The first protest was in June 2012. That one got a lot of attention among the Inuit, because generally Inuit never protested against anything. It’s the Inuit way to get along with one another, and that’s from the historical part. When the Inuit lived in camps they had to work together to survive. There was not even an actual word for protest. […] In the beginning when we were organizing the protest, we got a lot of, ‘This is not the Inuit way, what are you guys doing?” While the protests are unprecedented in Inuit communities, and therefore have brought widespread attention to the topic, little has happened since then. Many people in Nunavut still do not have enough food.

This is also partially due to the lack of support in form of social assistance and child support payments. Claire explained that she’s disturbed by the apathy of the government. “I’m not receiving support right now, no child support payments. I went to a court and I kept calling the Nunavut government offices, but they don’t pay child support. And we struggle with no food.” Papatsie makes clear that this is not an uncommon situation, “We’ve heard lots of comments on the social assistance not being enough. When [people] get their social assistance, within a week they have no more food in the house. The social assistance is only a band-aid solution for a week.”

“Another thing is that when you do go hunting, it’s a skill that not everyone up here has anymore. And if you do go hunting you know it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to hunt something.” –Leesee Papatsie

Country food and other solutions
The completely ineffective assistance that the Canadian government provides to Indigenous communities is a symptom of their lack of concern for and ignorance of Indigenous rights and needs. Some people in the Feeding My Family Facebook group argue that self-sustenance in the form of greenhouses, a step towards country food, and less dependence on the specific freight subsidies might be beneficial. In a paper called “Conceptualizing food security for Indigenous people in Canada,” Elaine M. Power argues “that cultural food security is an additional level of food security beyond individual, household and community levels.” Cultural food in this case describes traditional food resources, which are also called ‘country foods.’ Papatsie underlined the benefits of country foods in Inuit communities. “Its very common for Inuit to share whatever they’ve caught. That’s always been the Inuit tradition. A lot of it comes from years ago, when there used to be starvation among the Inuit, so the Inuit have always helped each other with hunger. […] Inuit share their food, what they’ve caught. It’s a very common tradition in the North, and I think that is part of the reason why there’s no starvation now[…] There are a lot of family members feeding other family members, not just with country food. If a person didn’t have [food] at home, they would go to their cousins, who would have food, and they would share whatever they are eating.” Claire added that the sharing is not just common between family members, but that hunters, after a successful hunt, “call radio or post on Facebook [and tell others] to come get caribou meat.” The only problem with this is that transportation between communities is sometimes difficult, so some of the meat might spoil.

Hunting in order to get country food is, like most things in this region, quite expensive. Due to the centralized settlements, technology is needed to hunt more effectively and to cover a larger territory. Hunting gear and transportation, such as snowmobiles, are pricey, and not many people can afford the maintenance. Wenzel told The Daily, “[A snowmobile] is like a car: once you drive it off the lot, it also depreciates by a quarter. […] You’re putting in several thousands of dollars in repairs plus fuel in the first year, and then it gets worse after that.” Many stores don’t keep replacement parts for older models, so Inuit have to invest in new vehicles on a constant basis.

While Canada’s 1998 action plan for food security – a document that was drafted in response to the World Food Summit action plan – includes a whole page on traditional resources, there hasn’t been much visible work on part of the government in this area. According to Wenzel, “There is no substantial support for producing traditional resources, traditional food.” Papatsie adds that, “Another thing is that when you do go hunting, it’s a skill that not everyone up here has anymore. And if you do go hunting you know it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to hunt something.” Claire proposes that “[the government] should help more with country food, so that it can be available every week. They should hire a couple of hunters who can go out every week or twice a week. [The government should] give to community, and not just limit it. One caribou is not enough for a lot of people here. [They should] hire a couple of hunters to go hunting for the local people who can’t go hunting, who don’t have the transportation.”

A higher focus on country foods and a subsidization of the gear needed for hunting methods would require understanding and support of Indigenous needs and practices by the Canadian government. History has shown that the government largely fails to empower Indigenous people and to serve them efficiently by creating an environment in which self-determination and reliance can even be possible. It becomes more and more visible that programs such as Nutrition North are not completely altruistic, and benefit the buisnesses, instead of people affected by food insecurity. By introducing systems that leave many Indigenous people in poverty, unable to feed their children, the government is reinforcing colonial, imperialist power structures. The Canadian government owes Indigenous people not only to work with them, but to efficiently work for them in the same way that they would for anyone else in the country: by enabling self-determination and by reinforcing practices and a socioeconomic system designed for these areas, and asked for by the people living in the North.

*Name has been changed.

– With files from Ralph Haddad


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.