The ‘ice roads’ that connect remote communities in northern Canada are like busy highways in the winter. Many people travel on the winter road to get perishable goods at lower prices, or non-perishable stuff in bulk quantities. Some foods just aren’t available at all in remote northern communities.
I visited remote communities in northern Ontario many times during my years in graduate school, and became familiar with those isolated winter roads. During several of those trips, I was pregnant. I tried to bring food with me to eat during my stay, but I could only bring so much. And I never knew what to expect from the local grocery store. Would there be milk on the shelf or in the refrigerator? Would the fruit or vegetables be worth buying? Would I be able to find the ingredients I needed if I wanted to bake something? Had I brought enough cash to buy all of the food that I would need during my stay?
These concerns were prompted by specific experiences – during one trip there was no fresh or even ’shelf’ milk available. Another time there was no brown bread. In one particularly remote community I found shelves almost completely empty, because bad weather had restricted planes from landing in the community for a few weeks. I worried even during these one- or two-week visits that I wasn’t getting some of the nutrients my pregnant body really needed, like calcium. For me, this was a challenge I only experienced intermittently by choice. For so many who live in these isolated and food-insecure places in the north, it’s the daily reality.
There’s been considerable attention paid in the past few years to the alarming situation of food insecurity in northern Canada. United Nations Right to Food Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter was sent on a Canadian mission in 2012. He visited remote fly-in communities and wrote about the serious lack of adequate access to food in the north. He also called for a reform to the Nutrition North Canada (NNC) program.
In 2014 the Canadian Auditor General concluded his review of the NNC and his report determined three main concerns: 1) that community eligibility for the program was not based on need; 2) it was not verified whether retailers were passing on the subsidy to consumers; and 3) there needed to be a better performance measurement strategy for the program.
His first concern deals with the eligibility of certain communities for the program. While all of the communities in Nunavut are fully eligible for NNC, many communities in the provincial norths are not fully eligible. Only eight of 32 remote communities in northern Ontario are fully eligible for the subsidy, for example.
"For so many who live in these isolated and food-insecure places in the north, it’s the daily reality."
There seems to be a strong focus on food insecurity in the arctic (which is definitely still alarming and concerning), and communities in the provincial north do not get the same attention. A recent example of this is a report released by Statistics Canada which stated “the Territories had considerably higher rates of food insecurity than the provinces,” but failed to mention in the text that the data were not collected on reserve or in remote northern areas of the provinces. This data limitation was only included as a footnote, and not picked up when the report was covered by the media. The data on food insecurity that is available from the provincial north is alarming. One study of 14 communities in northern Manitoba found the rate of household food insecurity to be 75% and another discrete study in northern Ontario found the prevalence of food insecurity to be 70% among the households surveyed in the community. One contributor to these high rates of food insecurity is the extremely high cost of market foods.
The Feeding My Family advocacy group has been providing a voice for northerners who face exorbitantly high food prices. Founded by Leesee Papatsi, the group has recently produced popular ‘fake ads’ on YouTube to advocate for lower food costs in the arctic, and there are even spin-off initiatives like Helping Our Northern Neighbours which links interested donors with northern families in need. This attention is greatly needed in the arctic north, but non-arctic northern communities continue to be largely ignored, despite their comparable food insecurity challenges and high prices.
"These programs must be created, led, and supported by funding and community direction."
So what are people living in the northern parts of the provinces doing to cope with such high rates of food insecurity and high food costs? Some communities have resourceful, local food activists who organize important community initiatives like alternative food markets, school nutrition programs, gardening and greenhouse projects, hunter/harvester support programs, community freezer and harvest sharing programs. These grass roots initiatives need to be acknowledged and supported.
Country food programs have been defined as “organized initiatives that support people living off the land in order to feed the local community” and the study in northern Manitoba found that country food programs had the greatest effect on rates of food security – perhaps the greatest positive impact on food security than any other type of program. These programs must be created, led, and supported by funding and community direction.
Non-profit organizations like Food Secure Canada are advocating for better policies to improve food security in northern Canada, with their Northern and Remote Food Network and their Eat – Think – Vote campaign which highlighted advancing northern food security as one of its four main pillars prior to the 2015 federal election. The federal government must also take action to support community-based initiatives and listen to the people who live in northern Canada regarding the best ways to improve food security and move towards food sovereignty.
Dr. Kelly Skinner is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo. She has worked closely with a number of First Nations communities in northern Ontario on community-based health and social projects related to food, nutrition, and food security. Her research has included an assessment of the prevalence and severity of food insecurity, critiques of food security measurement tools for northern populations, evaluation of community-led food initiatives, and food costing in northern Canada.