In Canada’s Far North, where two litres of milk can cost $14, a bag of flour $33, and 10 pieces of fried chicken $61.99, the government of Nunavut thinks a better future might lie in the past. So it has launched a program encouraging residents to follow the example of their ancestors and live off the land, harvesting more traditional “country food” like seal, muskox and even ground squirrel. “It’s partly for reasons of cost, and it’s partly for reasons of nutrition,” says Ed McKenna, director of the territory’s Anti-Poverty Secretariat. “But it’s also related to culture. For many people it’s their preferred food.”
And more to the point, it’s a straightforward solution to one of Nunavut’s most persistent social ills: hunger. A 2010 McGill University study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal estimated that nearly 70 per cent of preschoolers in the territory live in “food insecure” households, where there is not enough—or sometimes anything at all—to eat. Another survey, undertaken by the federal government, found that half of 11- to 15-year-olds in Nunavut reported sometimes going hungry. “The numbers are pretty stark,” says McKenna. “It’s a major issue.”
The Country Food Distribution Program is providing close to $4 million in funding over three years to help isolated municipalities feed themselves. Grants are available to help establish or upgrade community freezers, or set up local fresh-kill markets. But so far, the most popular aspect of the plan has been the direct subsidies—up to $10,000—for large-scale hunts. Last year, 14 of the territory’s 25 settlements took advantage of the cash, which is earmarked for basic supplies. “Harvesting has become more dependent on Ski-Doos, so you’re talking about the gas, as well as the cost of firearms and bullets, and then food and other equipment,” says McKenna. “It’s the kind of expense that’s beyond the reach of many, many people now.”
Repulse Bay, a hamlet of about 900 at the far northwestern edge of Hudson’s Bay, received a grant last winter and organized a hunt that bagged 20 caribou for distribution to those in need. “We’re a small community and there’s hardly any work here,” says Michel Akkuardkuk, president of the Arviq Hunters and Trappers Association. “We wanted to give country food to some of the elders and people who don’t have snowmobiles.” The group is applying for another subsidy this year. “It’s a good program,” says Akkuardkuk. “It helps.”
The shift toward a more traditional Arctic diet is already well under way in Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, where a community group established a country food market in 2010. The monthly open-air sales are held in a park next to the local supermarket, allowing hunters to drive right up on their snowmobiles or ATVs with trailers full of meat or fish. “It all sells out in about 10 minutes,” says Willie Hyndman, the executive director of Project Nunavut. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of a blizzard, there are always about 150 people waiting.” A medium-sized Arctic char goes for $20; so too for a large freezer bag of seal meat. Wild berries can be had for $10 a container. Walrus, ptarmigan, seaweed and other delicacies are also for sale. Elders are given first crack, but the market is open to everyone.
It’s been such a success that the obvious question is why no one has tried it before. Hyndman says many people assured him the plan wouldn’t work, citing government regulations, or opposition from hunters and trappers. But as it turned out, the roadblocks were more imagined than real.
The market’s popularity may also have something to do with simmering anger in the North about the ever-increasing cost of packaged goods. Earlier this summer, a Facebook group devoted to cataloguing examples of price gouging—$20 cabbages and $105 cases of bottled water—attracted more than 10,000 followers and ended up sparking demonstrations outside supermarkets across the territory. “It’s the most nutritious food that’s available up here. And it’s a lot cheaper,” says Hyndman.
There is some concern, however, that encouraging more hunting will harm species that are already under stress from climate change, habitat destruction or historical overharvesting. A recent report by Nunavut’s Environment Department cautioned that caribou herds are already in a long-term decline, and that not enough is known about the sustainability of other large-game options like reindeer. The key recommendation was to try and further diversify the local diet, pointing people toward some less traditional fare like Arctic hare, snow geese and squirrel.
McKenna says the government is mindful of the need to avoid creating new problems as they search for solutions to existing challenges. “We don’t want to be encouraging people to do something that’s not going to be in their benefit in the long run.” More studies will be undertaken, and there are no plans to commercialize the hunts and start exporting fish and game outside the territory. “The focus is poverty reduction,” he says. “So it’s not a large program, but it can have a pretty good impact.”