Betty Kogvik wheels a metal cart down the aisles of Gjoa Haven’s Northern grocery store under neon lights. She scans the shelves, hoping for shiny red apples or vibrant oranges to treat her 13 grandchildren, but all she sees are bruised bananas and wilted lettuce leaves. She picks up an avocado, feeling its soft core, practically liquid inside the green skin, and sets it back down. Eventually, the elder gives up and heads to a cashier, preparing for the costly bill.
“It’s really pricey and some [of the food] is already rotten,” Kogvik says. “When you really need something to use for your baking or cooking, it can be really frustrating to get produce.”
It's a normal occurrence in many Northern communities to have to choose over-ripe and over-priced food. According to a recent study, the average cost to feed a family of four in the North was $422.07 per week in 2019, nearly double what it was in the south. Unsurprisingly, federal statistics say the rate of household food insecurity was at 16.9 per cent, 21.6 per cent and 57 per cent in Yukon, the NWT and Nunavut respectively in 2021. That same year, the rate in the rest of Canada averaged 15.9 per cent.
The reasons behind all this are well known. Frigid temperatures that prevent people from gardening year-round, the remoteness of communities and the lack of roads to reach them. Diminished self-determination and the loss of traditional knowledge all play a part. Climate change has caused a decline in big game, and melting ice makes it difficult to travel from communities to hunt and can be dangerous to cross.
On a macro level, there are a few efforts in place. Nutrition North provides a subsidy to retailers that is ideally passed down through price reductions at grocery stores. For example, a cantaloupe that would have been more than $11 is brought down to $6.49. Cucumbers go from about seven dollars to six. That’s if they’re edible by the time they reach the store.
Despite the challenges that stand in the way of food security, Northerners are resourceful, trying to fill in the gaps with traditional and modern solutions. Many turn to hunting, fishing or foraging. Others work toward creating new technology that allows for growing food year-round. But in a changing climate and an increasingly unaffordable world, how much can Northern individuals really do to create a sustainable future?
Leon Andrew remembers a childhood of laying low in the bushes, listening for the snap of branches or peaking out at caribou, as his father and grandfather taught him how to hunt. He would sometimes be gone from home for days at a time camping with his family, learning about the environment and how to harvest an animal once it was caught. Andrew grew up on country food and continued to rely on hunting with his brothers back in the ’90s and early 2000s.
“That’s what I grew up on,” he says. “It makes me feel healthy… it’s good to have our traditional food.”
While Andrew still gets out on the land when he can, the elder spends more time these days within the community, acting as a knowledge keeper and research director for the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board (SRRB) or Ɂehdzo Got’ı̨nę Gots’ę́ Nákedı. Through this position, he teaches the community about the land and its benefits, while also advising on certain projects. He encourages others to return to their traditional roots, to when Northerners lived off the land.
It was a different time, he says, because although Northerners were not invincible against food scarcity before colonialism, it was rare. While it may have seemed barren to settlers, the NWT was a plentiful place to those who lived here. Northern Indigenous peoples knew what plants could and couldn’t be eaten and when they would be in season. People often followed the animal herds, moving between seasonal camps to harvest food.
But in the early 1900s, relocations, settlement programs and residential schooling changed all of that, making a once nomadic lifestyle and the passing of life skills to younger generations near impossible. Once Northern Indigenous people moved into permanent settlements, they faced strict harvesting regulations. They were made to be entirely reliant on the way of life that settlers claimed was better.
“The way elders understood it was this store-bought food they knew nothing about was of more value than the food they had originally [hunted],” says Kukik Baker. “They were made to feel that everything they did was not good enough.”
Baker, who grew up in Arviat, knows better. Through Aqqiumavvik Arviat Wellness Society, she helped set up the Young Hunters Program in 2012. Over 10 weeks, children from eight to 18 years old learn from hunters and elders what it means to be out on the land and to hunt and harvest food. At the end of the program, these children—who caught fish, caribou and whales—brought their harvest back to Arviat and shared it with others. When it began, the response from the community was overwhelmingly positive.
“We were excited about what we were hearing — how much happier the kids were and how they had a more positive outlook on life,” Baker explains.
Hearing the community response, it became clear it was about more than food security. It was about bringing the next generation back to their roots and becoming happier children with a larger sense of purpose. The program was brought back the following year and is still going.
“We’ve gone full circle from that first group of kids,” says Baker. “Out of that group, two of those participants have come back to become instructors for our program.”
One of those instructors is Lucas Owlijoot, who was 12 years old when he caught his first caribou. The experience helped strengthen his confidence and over time he honed his skills, catching seals, belugas, grizzlies, wolves and fish, which he shares with his friends, family and elders. Since a beluga can feed dozens of residents over a whole summer, there’s no need to purchase over-priced meat from the grocery store. That self-sufficiency is something Owlijoot is eager to share with others. “It feels good to teach kids how to hunt,” he says.
But as the climate warms, the program has changed with it. Aqqiumavvik Wellness Society has teamed up with the Canadian Wildlife Service, McMaster University and other organizations to incorporate climate action into their programming. Now, youth also learn how to measure and record ice thickness and keep track of wildlife populations.
By mapping goose nests, the team discovered an over-population of the bird moving North, and eating all the region’s vegetation. Because of this knowledge, they’re able to incorporate geese into their diet. Aqqiumavvik is creating recipes, like pulled-goose (rather than pulled-pork) and goose pot pie. They then teach the recipes to locals in the community while also working to commercialize geese products.
A similar project is taking place in the NWT, as Ɂehdzo Got’ı̨nę Gots’ę́ Nákedı teaches locals how to harvest muskox. As the population of muskox has ballooned, territorial organizations are using videos and workshops to encourage people to turn to the shaggy animals for country food, to help take the pressure off the caribou population. After all, one muskox has about 275 pounds of meat to it and it wasonce a common source of Northern food before the mid-1800s.
The idea of harvesting abundant species to replace declining ones is not new. People in Délı̨nę and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region have long harvested a variety of species to adapt with changes in the environment. The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation’s country food processing plant, for example, has been experimenting with beaver as there is a growing number of them within the Inuvik region.
“When you’re thinking about food security in terms of wildlife and being out on the land, things are different out there than when I grew up,” says Andrew. “You need to find other sources of food.”
Muskox is a bit more popular over in Nunavut, where employees at Kitikmeot Foods don plastic caps and gloves to prepare muskox, as well as Arctic char. Formed in 1993, the Cambridge Bay-based company works with up to 50 seasonal hunters and fishers to offer prime cuts of meat and make things like jerky and burgers. Meanwhile, Kivalliq Arctic Foods offers similar products which they sell within Rankin Inlet, as well as to Nunavummiut across the territory. The “Country Food Pak” includes a variety of items from char and caribou, to muskox and maktaaq, which can be shipped directly to customers or bought through retailers.
Some have worried about the lack of inspection on local meat sold around the community or through Facebook posts. But in 2017, the Government of Nunavut created a food safety guide that looks at how to handle and serve country food in the territory. The guide touches on the best temperature to store the meat at and how to best package it, what diseases certain animals may carry, where to get safe country meat from, and even includes some recipes. The guide is meant to encourage eating country foods, safely.
But while processing plants continue to grow and stores are popping up, there is a divide between generations about whether it is ethical or not to sell country foods,.
“People that are still thinking in the old tradition say that it's not the Inuit way of life to sell to others,” James Eetoolook of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. told the Canadian Press back in 2014. The tradition is to share or trade the food they have with their community.
“I think we need to protect the traditional values forever,” Eetoolook said. “But the world is changing and the Inuit are changing as well.”
These days, as less people have the time and resources to go out on the land themselves, it is more common for people to sell their catch. Because feeding yourself sustainably is a lot of work. Just ask Suzanne Crocker.
“It’s day three and I feel like crying.” Crocker takes a seat in front of a wooden panelled door and turns to the camera where she’s recording her video. “I’m not sure I can do this alone,” she says, rubbing her arms.
Crocker is recording her year-long experiment of eating entirely local from her community of Dawson City. It means taking advantage of every farm and farmer’s market in town, foraging, planting fruit and vegetables, making her own flour, harvesting meat and even trying to make salt from the rocks and water nearby. With a family of five, it also means somehow satisfying a skeptical husband and three unwilling children.
Crocker chronicled her journey in the documentary First We Eat, and thankfully she became more hopeful as time went on. She learned how to can — a task she says is quite easy once you start, discovers new recipes from plants she once thought were inedible, and builds relationships with her community, including elders and farmers who provide knowledge and produce.
“One hundred or so years ago when settlers first came here, Dawson City apparently used to produce 97 per cent of its own food… and then, of course, prior to settlers coming here, people ate 100 per cent from the land,” Crocker says, adding that it’s a complete shift from today, where 97 per cent of food is trucked into the community. Realizing how reliant Northerners are on shipped food made Crocker decide to take this journey, just to see if eating locally could be done.
Prior to the experience, the Crocker family had a small garden and hunted for moose that they often shared with another family, since one moose could feed several people for a year. But this new plan meant a lot more work learning about the community and the land she lives on.
“I was very reliant on our local farmers, which was part of the purpose, of course, was to see what this area could provide and not just what me — one person — could provide.”
What she discovered was that a lot of people harvested and farmed in the region.
“A lot of our farmers and food producers live on the far side of the rivers or upriver or downriver, so they're not as easily accessible.”
After the experiment, she spoke with local conservation officers and food producers to ask if they thought the whole community could eat locally. The answer was generally yes, if done gradually. Conservation officers said it could work if everyone hunted and fished sustainably and farmers said they could produce more if the demand was there. But this way of life isn’t cheap.
“I did track [the cost] and it was actually more expensive to eat 100 per cent locally than to buy things at the store,” Crocker says. “But when you dig a little deeper, it’s like, what is the true cost of food? There are other systems, people or animals that are paying a price along the chain for us to be able to get food at that price in the store.”
While Crocker is right, that doesn’t make it easy for everyone to spend the extra money, since the cost of living is already astronomical in the North, up to nearly $74,000 in some areas.
That’s one of the reasons Inuvik’s Greenhouse Association offers fresh grown products at a discount, to help provide local families with nutritious food at a price they can afford. On a warm summer day, anyone can walk into the 16,000-foot community greenhouse and find nearly 200 garden plots, full of fresh herbs, greens and vegetables.
Residents pay a membership fee, offered on a sliding scale, and can take part in courses that teach the basics of gardening and the difference between indoor and outdoor gardening; they can also learn how to use different herbs or consult with an expert about their own garden plot.
According to greenhouse coordinator Adi Scott, residents rent about 90 per cent of the garden plots, while staff use the other 10 per cent to grow produce to sell at the farmer’s markets or to deliver to the food bank once a month. From her own personal plot, Scott says she had recently harvested about five kilograms worth of rhubarb, as well as spinach — which can cost about $10 a bag in the stores. She also harvests the weeds, which she then turns into pesto. “I’ll save like $30 to $40 a week,” she says, adding that a suggested subscription price to access the greenhouse is about $15 a week.
There is also a hydroponic system the association uses year-round, where they grow herbs, kale, Swiss chard and, recently, strawberries. It produces an average of 185 kilograms of produce a month, offering food that may seem like a luxury in the Inuvik grocery store.
“You can’t get fresh basil here of any edible quality, so [having the garden] has a huge impact,” says Scott.
Gjoa Haven hosts a similar project that the national non-profit Arctic Research Foundation (ARF) funded and built out of shipping containers in October 2019. With help from Agriculture Canada, CanOR and the Canadian Space Agency, ARF raised enough funding to build the hydroponic plant, called Naurvik (meaning the ‘growing place’ in Inuktitut) and has since produced crops of lettuce, peas, corn, strawberries and more year-round. Powered primarily by solar panels and wind turbines — even in the depths of winter — the produce harvested is given to elders, women at risk and others in need.
“Most of the elders appreciate what we do and they’re so proud of us,” says Kogvik, manager at the plant. “I’m really happy that we give them out to our community.”
The hydroponic system provides employment for about a dozen residents and offers training in planting and harvesting, as well in upkeep for the building and its technology. The food grown changes depending on what the community wants and what will best compliment traditional dishes, like caribou stew. ARF is working to create similar projects in other Nunavut communities, so that everyone can have access to fresh food. But it’s not a simple task.
“The budget is so hard to get to have more staff and get all the equipment needed,” Kogvik says. It seems to be a problem faced across the territories.
Fixing food insecurity is much bigger than these grass-root solutions, but it’s a start not just to providing better food, but jobs, security and physical and mental wellness.
Kogvik can attest to the joy that a few fresh greens can bring to a person’s life. Tag along with her any Saturday afternoon as she visits some of the homes in Gjoa Haven with a basket of food for elders. She mentions one woman who knows Kogvik is coming before she even enters the room.
“She jumps with joy and starts dancing. She really enjoys what we give her.” The look on their faces that appear upon sinking their teeth into a juicy strawberry or digging into a bowl of crisp greens is what pushes her to keep growing and sharing with others.
Local greenhouses and hunting programs are not necessarily going to save the North from food insecurity when the world is warming, but it’s a step in the right direction when communities regroup and provide for each other.