A few months back, while I was working with Syrian newcomers in the GTA, a friendly Inuit man from Gjoa Haven, a small island hamlet around the 69th parallel, introduced himself to our Facebook group. The community group that I volunteered at were giving out warm winter coats and boots to Syrian refugees, while his family was in need too. It’s understandable that he would feel forgotten. The media pays little attention to their situation while all of the news coverage of the refugee crisis, while tremendously desperate and horrible in itself, does not negate the plight that my new friend’s community faces.
With the exception of the odd news item, I admit that I am just as ignorant as the next person when it comes to our northern Inuit population and the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis. Most of us are just as ignorant about the amount of poverty, sometimes third world in nature, that these people live in despite Canada being one of the richest first nations in the world.
In a short period of time, I learned that everything is very expensive in many of the remote communities in Nunavut, especially fresh food. While the causes of poverty are much more complex than I can state in this brief article, there are two main reasons I can ascertain why the food crisis is the way it is: lack of country food and the enormously high food costs in local co-ops and grocery stores.
I contacted Leesee Papatsie, a mother of 5 from the Iqaluit, Nunavut, to help break it all down for me. About 4 and a half years ago, she created the Feeding my Family Facebook group to protest the rising costs of food. She says in an interview, “I wanted to organize a protest on the high cost of food in the north. Earlier before, some people wanted to have a protest on the high cost of food and on rotten food being sold.”
Papatsie says that Facebook is a common tool in the north since social media is a much cheaper option than travel and long-distance phone calls. The Facebook group easily swelled to over 24, 000 members, but Papatsie did encounter some resistance at the onset.
It was hard at first, because in the past, Inuit had to work together to survive in our harsh climate, everyone had to live in harmony, no one going against the grain. In the beginning, we got a lot of ‘this is not the Inuit way, why are you doing this?’
Her motivations were clear: kids in the north go hungry because of the high costs of food and “there are families that may go and eat at another family members because they don’t have an food in the fridge.” Papatsie explains what food insecurity is:
In the north, there are people who cannot afford to buy food, or a meal. We have heard that mothers will not eat meals so their kids can eat. We have heard mothers will feed babies canned carnation milk because they cannot afford to buy powered milk (e.g. Similac) or regular milk.
It is very common for lower income families to go without meals, they may be lucky to have a meal that day. Because food is so expensive, some people will buy what we call ‘stomach fillers’, such as KD, spaghetti, rice.
When you have to pay for 5 dollars for a loaf of bread, between 4 to 5 dollars for frozen Minute Maid concentrated juice, and something like 3 dollars for one box of KD, lower income families cannot afford that.
In most communities there are only 2 stores, and generally they are not a big in-size stores. You get what is brought in and you pay for what they sell it for. We don’t have a lot of choices in the north.
And yet, she tells me that there is no starvation. “Traditionally Inuit have shared their food… share their country food (harvested wildlife like caribou, seal, rabbit, birds, etc)”
Food insecurity isn’t the only issue facing our northern neighbours. Lack of housing and overcrowding are a common issue all over the north. With the high cost of living for rent and utilities, it is not uncommon for 5 to 9 family members to live in one house. She tells me, “Couch surfing is really a nice put words, it is more, is there floor place where I can sleep tonight?”
Because there are no roads leading to the northern communities, supplies and food have to be flown in during the winter, a very costly form of transportation, or brought in by sea barge in the summer.
Papatsie says that one of the biggest misunderstanding that southerners have about the north is that the solution to food insecurity is to hunt like their ancestors. In reality, the issue is much more complex than that because the high cost of food is merely a symptom of the extraordinary cost of living in Nunavut Territory. Hunting is expensive – for fuel and equipment – and not everyone is a trained hunter. Also, the Inuit were once nomadic and followed the animals while most northerners were forced to settle in one community. She says, “To be forced to live in one spot, automatically creates hardship to find wildlife and to find food.”
People of the south, people like me who live in large cities and towns across the country wonder why would these people choose to stay when to our way of thinking, with the high costs of importing food and the high costs of heating their homes and running their vehicles, they just wouldn’t move more south.
Papatsie explains in her own words:
Move? This is our home. We are connected to the land, it is our being. We live in a place where there is no noise; there is, but not like in a city. There is hardly any traffic, no big buildings. And in most places down south, people don’t look at each other and smile. To me that is a hostile environment. We are proud of where we live and who we are. If I had to move to [the] south, I think I would slowly die, eating me away slowly. It must be hard to live in a place where you are not connected to the place, where you don’t have a feeling of a sense of belonging. By choice, this is not an option for me.
I have kept in touch with my new friend and his family in Gjoa Haven, chatting often on Facebook and offering some help where I can while the family continue to struggle. My friend has just completed school and is awaiting a mining job that he hopes begins in April. In the mean time, it’s unbearable to me that a family would have to go hungry with empty cupboards and empty tummies. My friend reiterates what Papatsie has told me, that its their way to feed the children first, even if that means that the parents and the grandparents go without food for a day or two.
I believed that I could help in some small way. I wrote a letter to Nunavut’s federal MP Hunter Tattoo and contacted a lawyer in Iqaluit to help my new friend with some legal trouble his father was having. Nothing came of it. I also felt embarrassed at my own arrogance in thinking that I could change things when I know nothing of their way of life. I came to that realisation while I was speaking to a very soft spoken Inuit man, a contact that I made at the co-op in Gjoa Haven. How strange I must have come across, this southerner from Toronto trying to assert herself into their lives. I could feel my loudness, my dominance with him on the phone, a people who have been in Canada for about 800 years.
Inuit in the last 100 hundred years have gone through a huge cultural shock. We completely lived out on the land, now we have a totally different life style. Historically we did not have formal education, did not have formal work Monday to Friday, we did not have internet or TV and this life style, historically is something totally new to us. This is a whole different culture and custom to us Inuit. I do know one thing, Inuit have always been good at adaptations, we are going to find a way to adapt to this lifestyle while keeping our culture.
So despite my feelings on ignorance and arrogance and a little bit of hopelessness at the enormous task, I think I am on the right path when Papatsie offers ideas on how we can help:
Talk about this, to your family, to your friends, let me them know what is happening in the north. Write to your MP about what is happening in the north. What can you do? What do you have as a skill that can be useful to help the north? Use your imagination, creativity and just do what is right in your heart. You can’t go wrong with that.
Papatsie thinks that there is no reasonable reason why some items are so expensive and she would like to see the cost of food in the north come down (although she knows some items will remain expensive) She hopes, “more Inuit speak out, and as I mentioned, traditionally we had to live in harmony and work together to survive. I am seeing this slowly and it is happening. I would like to see other Inuit to speak up when something is not right. I want to see us Inuit, survive in success in this new culture and keeping who we are live.”