Muskox on the menu as Nunavut encourages return to traditional foods

The government is subsidizing hunters to return to the land

Muskox on the menu

Joanna B. Pinneo/GETSTOCK

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.”


Muskox on the menu as Nunavut encourages return to traditional foods

  1. Wonderful…as others move into the knowledge economy….we’ll put Nunavut back in the hunter-gatherer stage.

    • Technology doesn’t progress like you think it does, nor does civilization. Instead, civilizations use what works and technology uses what works. There is not some pre-ordained path of progress that starts with hunter-gathering and ends with you.

      In this case, hunting and gathering is the most efficient form of gaining access to food rather than importing planes filled with processed foodstuffs. Therefore, it is perfectly “advanced” because it is the most logical thing to do for the health of the inhabitants of Nunavut.

      Now back to Emily, where she will reiterate her point without bothering to consider mine and call me an idiot or a loser.

      • Well if you look around the world, you’ll see that’s pretty much how it DOES progress. Countries/civilizations are often on different time-lines [some countries are just now having their industrial revolution for example] and some rise and then get knocked down by war or famine….maybe to rise again, maybe not.

        But on the whole, humanity has gone from hunter-gatherer to agriculture to industrial revolution to service economy and then the knowledge one. Frem the caves to the stars.

        Nunavut shouldn’t stay in the earliest stage….the north needs to be developed instead of remaining at the subsistence level….a dangerous and iffy proposition at the best of times.

        How long do you think they should stay that way? Another thousand years? Two?

        Meantime the world moves on?

        Hell, for all we know the person who could invent warp drive is living there, being trained to hunt walrus instead, fergawdsake.

        • You are assuming this is an either/or situation. It’s not. Just because people go back to a more traditional diet, based on hunting, doesn’t mean that they can’t/won’t “progress” in other ways. Nothing in the article suggested that everyone should go back to a hunter/gatherer lifestyle. The way I read it, the article is about offering more/better food choices for people living in the north.

          • When people in Calgary are going hungry, no one sends out a hunting party to feed people their ‘traditional foods’ like deer, moose, bear etc.

            Nor do they expect them to go around killing squirrels and rabbits in the city.

            They find a better way to solve the problem instead of hiding it in cultural malarkey.

          • Yes, but this article is not talking about people in Calgary is it? The article refers to a problem in the far north, which is a completely different scenario. There are some very good health-related reasons for people to return to a more traditional diet. It’s not just “cultural malarkey”.

          • Both places have people….Canadians….and they are equal. No fobbing them off with the idea that ‘traditional’ is much better for them. It’s racism.

          • Funny, I was always under the impression that denigrating traditional ways in favour of “modern” ways was racist – my mistake {sarcasm}.
            Back to my original point – it’s about CHOICE. If someone prefers to follow a more traditional way of life, they should be free to do so. It’s neither racist nor “cultural malarkey”.

          • And they have no choice……thus endeth your argument

        • How should Canada do it and not to be accused of stealing their culture and identity? Have you ever been there and do you know their history? Canada moved them into comunities years ago to facilitate some progress, and that has not worked very well.

          • Oh please….enough with this bilge about culture….they already have grocery stores and twinkies

            What they don’t have are roads!

          • Way to (not) answer dani02’s questions.
            And I don’t see that roads are the solution. More and better roads will not shorten the distance between Northern & Southern Canada.

          • Roads can bring in food, housing, clothing….economic development, civilization

            At the moment all they have is ice roads….and that won’t last for much longer.

      • Not only is it more efficient, it is probably more healthful. Studies on aboriginal people (cited in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food) have shown that returning to their former sources of food can help aboriginal people reduce their rates of diabetes and heart problems.
        New ways are not always the best ways.

    • We`ll put? They will themselves. They moved from dogs to skidoos and trucks.BTW- how will they progress to agriculture? May be raindeer like in Lapland.That was tried and did not work.

  2. Don’t think there’s anything wrong with them going back to a more traditional diet – if that is what the locals prefer from a financial and cultural point of view. It is an ethnocentric outlook that people need to “catch up” to the modern concept of technology and knowledge economies.

    • Um no, it’s arrogance to think we can disguise racism and selfishness as cultural concern.

      Like leaving those primitive tribes along the Amazon in total isolation and ignorance.

  3. If the people of Nunavut WANT to live in an urban environment they are free to move to a more modern and polluted environment (alla EmilyOne) and have access to “warp drive”. It is amazing how some people are arrogant enough to believe that because they want to live in the most populated province in country and shackle themselves to the internet 24/7 that everyone has the same desire. Some people actually enjoy their somewhat isolated, “primative” and quiet existence. It isn’t for us to chose for them. At least have the decency to ask them what they want and respect their choices.

    • No actually they aren’t free to do so….nor do they have any such choices.

      • Who pray tell is stopping them from living anywhere in Canada that they chose…or for that matter, applying to emigrate to another country as is the right of all Canadian citizens? Many First Nations people chose to leave their communities and move to urban centres, get educations and jobs and adopt a different way of life. In no way are they forced to live a traditional way of life. Maybe you are familiar with some famous FN Canadian artists and architects who have chosen to leave the traditional way of life of their ancestors. Their examples prove your assertions completely false, Emily. Of course I realize you will continue to respond with some completely ridiculous bs so lets just be clear that I disagree with you AS USUAL.

        • Lack of education, cultural isolation, lack of money….

          No, you don’t ‘disagree’ with me, you just like to natter

          • When I learned the cost of medical procedures remote north (or is it docs?) is 2.1x the cost of cities (and remote rural is only 1.3x I think with nearer small towns 0.9x cities), I firmed my belief that the most expensive to supply reserves should be bought out and moved to cheap areas that have good economics (near farms, rails, within commute of trades workers). The fastest growing community in MB is about 40km from Winkler. Winkler is a town of maybe 12000 that has been groweing fast for over a decade. It has the property prices of 670000 and the smaller town is within commute range of Winkler. Someone in the small town told me their property prices are already high. There are numerous towns two hours outside of Wpg that have homes for $20000…
            Ideally you want to find out which towns are about to boom like Winkler (good farm commodity prices and strong dollar this millenium), and send expensive reserves to these towns. The feds can’t afford to subsidize a fast growing artificially expensive population. Knowing how expensive water pipes are now, I wonder if 3rd world water filtration advances, 1st world technologies like a plastic bottle water filter, should be purchased or customed for remote IRs?
            Why is water expensive?! Melt the ice and build a bottling plant. I’m thinking about working in a cannery, but the two hr commute is a turnoff. Need more mayors to gas tax for transit, like Mtl’s.

  4. WOW some of the comments I am reading tells me that people simply do not understand the plight of the Inuit and the changing arctic conditions….. The Inuit know themselves what they want and need…that is to exercise their God given right to be who and what they are, it’s not for some southern know it all to dictate what is good or bad for the Inuit, enough of that bs. Let the Inuit speak for themselves/ourselves. We have self government, the days of dictatorship and colonialism is over. The meddlings of people who live far away from the fact is and has created more disruption than anything else. How would you like it if someone came to your community and told you what you should or should not do?

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