Food prices are incredibly inflated in order to compensate for the high costs of shipping, storage, and running a grocery store in the north. The federal government program Nutrition North Canada aims to make foods more accessible and affordable for northern communities by applying a subsidy to healthy foods.
Last summer I found myself in a place where every few days I would ‘treat’ myself to an apple. This apple was not a treat because it was freshly picked from an orchard, from the sweetest variety, at the best season. This apple was a treat because of the high price tag attached. This is my experience traveling to Nunavut for 5 weeks this summer. Nunavut has a larger land mass (21% of Canada) than any other province or territory in Canada, yet holds the smallest population (<1% of Canada). Many small communities are scattered and isolated across this huge area, resulting in the need for food to be flown in or shipped by boat when the weather cooperates.
"The culture in northern communities is very different than that of the south."
Food prices remain exorbitantly high compared to southern prices. 10kg of all-purpose flour sells for $44.99 in the community of Pangnirtung where I was staying, compared to just $13.97 back home in Saskatoon. Gala apples sell at $10.75/kg,to $4.36/kg in the south, and 2L of 1% milk is$8.99 compared to $3.37. These prices add up to grocery bills three times more expensive in the north, for the same food bought in the south.
The contrast is even starker if you look at the difference in median total income between north and south. In 2013 the median income for a family was $82,990, but only $63,300 in Nunavut, according to Statistics Canada. The numbers add up to more than a 25% lower income and 300% higher grocery bill for Nunavut residents.
It’s not surprising Nunavut has a higher food insecurity rate than any other province or territory in Canada, with 1 in 3 (36.7%) households experiencing food insecurity — four times above the Canadian average. It’s important to consider the resources and conditions that are already a reality in the north, rather than applying southern ideals and focus on imported foods.
The culture in northern communities is very different than that of the south. Many aspects shape cultures in the north, like the geography and climate of the north, and the traditional knowledge and history of the Inuit people who inhabit the region. The way of life for Inuit people changed over time after contact with Europeans.
An early reliance on hunting and gathering developed into a dependence on trade goods and wages through the advancement of industries such as whaling and the fur trade, with wealth primarily flowing to European people. Relocations of Inuit people to settlements occurred in the 1950-70s for various reasons including centralization of government offering healthcare, an economic shift into mining, and the introduction of compulsory schooling.
In order to keep people from moving away from the settlements to better hunting grounds, a dark history involving the RCMP slaughtering the sled dogs occurred in the 60s forcing Inuit to live in western-style communities. Continued development of resource extraction and other industry contributed to a stronger dependence on wage labour, replacing the subsistence background of Inuit people of harvesting country food for their families and instead relying primarily on market food.
It’s expensive to obtain necessary nutrients through imported market food. Hunting is an alternative, but viable hunting grounds are often far from communities, making snowmobiles or boats necessary for access Gas and hunting equipment also come with a large price tag though, meaning only those with high income can afford to take part in accessing country food to complement their diet.
"The input of the local residents is essential to improve food security within northern communities."
So how can we reduce the food insecurity in these small northern communities to ensure everyone can afford to obtain the nutrients necessary to lead a healthy life? Rather than Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada focusing primarily on subsidizing market food brought in from the south, subsidies should be focused on fuel and equipment for hunting. Subsidized community boats, snowmobiles and hunting equipment could be allocated to each community. Harvested country food can be brought back to the local Hunter Trapper Organization to divide equally amongst the community members. This strategy would complement Inuit culture, and encourage a more sustainable food system by using resources already common to the north.
Simply subsidizing northern stores for stocking more nutritious foods is clearly not working, and food prices are still too high to afford after the subsidy is applied. Policies should focus more on the affordability of food, and with participation — the input of the local residents is essential to improve food security within northern communities. Increased food security in the north can be improved with subsidized hunting equipment to contributing to a sustainable food system combined with subsidizing select market foods to a more affordable price through the input of northern residents.
Lauren Achtemichuk is a recent graduate from the University of Saskatchewan with a Bachelor of Arts and Science Honours degree in Environment and Society, and a Certificate in Sustainability. Her curiosity for the north expanded through academic focus on northern environments and developments, and community involvement on her experience in Nunavut.