To Nunavut With Love

The challenges of Northern communities and peoples

Winter in Canada means many things to many people. The first connotations that might come to mind are the crackling cold, softly falling snow, the shhhkk! of skates and – you hear that noise? – that’s the sound of your bank account draining to feed your furnace. Historically, winter is a time of hardship compared to our otherwise relatively moderate climate across much of Canada. But we’re generally a stalwart people in a well-off country, and we manage pretty well compared to others around the world...don’t we?

The truth is that Canada is home to a population who, though some of the hardiest individuals on earth in one of the most extreme environments, suffer less from the adversity of the severe northern Canadian climate than they do from poor economic circumstances, lack of local resources, a misunderstood culture and marginalized social status.

5kg bags of flour on grocery store shelves with prices $26.00 and $20.00.

The Inuit, and other northern peoples, live in an area many of us in the ten provinces (except maybe Manitoba!) consider inhospitable if not thoroughly uninhabitable, yet they are nothing if not resourceful in both survival and lifestyle, dignified and visionary in culture and vivid and rich with pride. The Inuit have extra challenges when it comes to many ordinary things.

An especially big problem is food insecurity and the cost of basic groceries. Another is the lack of available modern resources – make no mistake, the Inuit are a modern people – which forces many to move “down south” to other areas of Canada in order to pursue these things. And historically, the government has not been kind to Inuit regarding policies, land, social welfare and health care.

Food insecurity here is the highest in the world for an indigenous population in a developed country. For some families, the weekly grocery bill is $600 per week.

Fortunately, there are organizations that recognize Inuit’s unique needs. Here are three – one at the national political level, one at a local level and one a grass-roots-regular-Canadians-helping-Canadians group.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

ITK (literally, “Inuit United with Canada”) is an organization working to improve the social, cultural and economic well-being of the Inuit of Canada. Started in 1971 in recognition of the particular challenges faced by the Inuit, ITK supports Inuit interests by using a political approach. The establishment of this advocacy group would set in motion a mechanism for promoting leadership and giving Inuit a voice in issues that most affect them, including the creation of the new territory of Nunavut (“our land”) in 1999.

The Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre

Inuit leave the North for many reasons – chief among them are employment, education and medical care. Other reasons can be simply the high cost of living and housing challenges. One of the most alarming situations is the lack of adequate foster care available, so children are sent south to live in group homes or with foster families. Those who make the move south can suffer severe homesickness, loneliness and culture-shock and can lose access and connections to their customs and language. Incorporated in 2005, the OICC began as it took over the Head Start Program, which prepared children for school.

Today, it services the growing Inuit community in Ottawa by providing 10 programs in support of the areas of culture, education, recreation and social services. Losing community and having to navigate the urban environment are just a few of the big challenges they face, and the OICC helps to alleviate these stresses. Director of Youth programs, Lynda Brown, has been with the centre since its inception and considers herself an “Urban Inuk”. As a child, her family left Pangnirtung, NU and she soon lost all ties to her culture, including her language. When she moved to Ottawa, she began to regain through the centre what she had lost as a child and is fiercely proud of her own three children who have embraced the Inuit teachings they receive from “culture teachers.”

The centre offers small children and youth a way to keep or rediscover these important elements of the Inuit way of life – country food, throat singing, drum dancing and language lessons for the very young. Inuit Day is held every February and is open to the public. 

Helping Our Northern Neighbors

Shocking true story: In Nunavut, a flat of water can cost $105, a prepackaged salad $15 and a six-pack of apple sauce $14. For some families, the weekly grocery bill is $600 per week. Food insecurity here is the highest in the world for an indigenous population in a developed country despite subsidy programs like Nutrition North, which has been accused of benefitting the grocers more than the consumers. Jennifer Gwilliam discovered this stupefying fact and understood that families in the north are paying an even steeper price for lack of access to affordable, nutritious food – hunger, malnutrition and high levels of obesity and cardiovascular disease due to the poor nutritional content of what northerners do eat. She decided to take action by starting a Facebook group for people willing to send groceries and sponsor families to help put food on the table.

Now, there are at least 45 chapters across the country and two more in the US and Australia. Each chapter administers aid in its chosen way. The Grey Bruce, ON chapter, administered by Bo Penny, supports the breakfast program at Levi Angmak Elementary School in Arviat and a 16 member family who live in a four bedroom unit, reminding us that housing is also a profound problem. You can find a chapter close to you through Gwilliam’s main Facebook page.

An arctic town.
Photo: Mike Garcelon / shutterstock.com

Harvesting wild game...is a major part of our culture as Inuit. It provides us with some of the most nutritional food on the planet, materials to make clothing and other tools.  – Virginia Lloyd

From Nunavut with Hope

When I met her eighteen years ago, Nunavut resident Virginia Lloyd was already an enlightened and knowledgeable young woman. Turning that maturity into a career in promotion of Inuit rights and welfare, she has recently been Assistant Director and COO at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (a group which enforces the execution of the promises of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement) and is now Associate Deputy Minister of the Department of Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Government of Nunavut. We asked Ms. Lloyd to comment on the obstacles Inuit contend with, the need for assistance and the resilience and fortitude of the people. She finds it reassuring to know that southern Canadians are becoming more educated about and aware of the challenges that Nunavummiut (people from Nunavut) face:

Through recent efforts to fundraise and send produce to Nunavut, the groups that have worked so hard to gather goods quickly realized that it is one thing to get donations together, but it is a much larger feat to actually deliver the goods to the region.The cost of cargo has become so inhibitive that it makes you question, how can we make this better?

Lloyd believes that one very large obstacle in the way of food security has been the activist backlash against harvesting local animal food sources. Keep in mind that local plant-based produce, except for a few types of berries, is virtually non-existent.

There is a level of discomfort when we talk about harvesting our food. There are many negative connotations associated with harvesting wild game. The problem is that this is a major part of our culture as Inuit. It provides us with some of the most nutritional food on the planet, materials to make clothing and other tools. But in the modern world that includes activist groups that draw negative attention to these practices, Inuit are always going to be outnumbered by the global position of whether or not subsistence harvesting is appropriate.

In other words, many Inuit have been coerced into abandoning their hunting traditions and are being forced to rely on groceries that are processed, only marginally “fresh” (or frozen) and prohibitively expensive. Lloyd believes there are a few ways to combat the high cost of living in the North:

  • There is the political platform in which we can ask federal parties how they plan to ensure that there is equalization of cost of living across rural, remote and isolated parts of Canada.
  • There are lobbying efforts that could be made to ensure that Nunavummiut are supported in their right to access nutritional foods.
  • Educating Canada on the traditional aspects of Nunavut and the ties to harvesting and the modern mechanism that have been established to ensure that harvesting is done in a controlled management regime that was established through the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

The message here is not: “The poor, defenseless Inuit need help from southern Canadians in order to survive.” Having lived four years in Nunavut, I witnessed that this is not the case. My experience there taught me that these communities are at least as well represented by enlightened, driven and inspiring people as southern communities are. There are simply special circumstances and needs for Nunavummiut which deserve to be honoured and respected by fellow Canadians.

We must all appreciate the distinctiveness of this culture and that “southern” systems do not necessarily work in northern society. The key, as Ms. Lloyd commented, is education and having a political voice. Listening is the beginning of a solution.

Grocery photos courtesy of Helping our Northern Neighbours - Grey Bruce Chapter