3 As: Food Insecurity in Northern Canada

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Canada is many things. We are postcard-worthy scenery and an abundance of natural resources. We are peace, hope, accepting, diverse, and opportunity. We are painfully nice and friendly to a fault. But we are also home to the highest documented rate of food insecurity for any Indigenous population living in a developed country.

Yes, you read that right.

At the end of a list of the most stereotypically Canadian identifiers sits a terrifying statistic. It feels awkward, doesn’t it? Like it doesn't belong. But we promise you, it's there.  As most Canadians go about their days, it is easy to forget the daily realities of our Northern neighbours, where arctic conditions make survival a complex, daily battle for many communities. 

 

UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM

This is not meant to be a critique on those of us living in southern provinces. In reality, it is quite likely that many people are mostly unaware of the severity and desperation of an issue that has developed right under our noses. While this isn’t an excuse, per say, it is an excellent place to start learning. We are far too connected to one another to ignore the struggles of our fellow Canadians, so we must equip ourselves with the information needed to help. I encourage you, instead of getting defensive, to read this article from the perspective of a neighbour, parent, friend or loved one; with the view that all Canadian communities are your own. Temporarily set your biases aside and listen with compassion and an open mind.

The concept of food insecurity is not unique to the territories or to remote communities in Canada. However in Nunavut, “inadequate or uncertain access to an acceptable amount and quality of healthy food” becomes a matter of life-or-death for whole communities. According to Food Secure Canada, a third of the Nunavut population, or almost 11,800 people, report being food insecure every month. Measures of food insecurity sit along a spectrum, from a fear of running out of food all the way to the inability to eat entirely.

There are a number of factors that contribute to food insecurity, so for simplicity's sake, here are the "3 As" as they relate to Nunavut:

 

ACCESSIBILITY

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The challenges facing northern communities are not new by any means, however this difficult way of life has not always existed. Communities that relied on subsistence lifestyles to support themselves are now facing mounting barriers to continuing their traditional lifestyles, such as hunting restrictions, land regulations, and costs of exploration. Additionally, methods of hunting, gathering, and crop production are being lost as traditional knowledge struggles to be kept alive and passed onto the next generation. Through the combination of these, and many other issues that have arisen over the decades, Aboriginal communities have limited traditional food that historically would have sustained them.

Under today's system, many communities are reliant on winter roads, shipping routes or airlines to bring in the necessary supplies and food that they cannot cultivate on their own. Unlike a connected city like Toronto or Vancouver, this is a difficult, expensive and risky task. Shortages or outages are common in general stores across every province and territory, leave people to rely on each other to stretch their food provisions until the next shipment. 

 

AVAILABILITY 

The complications of feeding full families only continues after delivery. For many communities, bare shelves in a general store is a common sight. Food being shipped up North, regardless of transportation method, can take weeks to arrive. This delay can often cause fresh products, such as fruit and veggies, to go off in transit. Even once these items make it to their final destination, they are often bruised, wilted or spoiled entirely. The availability of good, fresh produce is almost non-existent. 

Due to this, there is also a frequent lack of food within households, meaning that a significant portion of the adult population will skip one or more meals a day to ensure children and elders are fed. Even with these sacrifices, a large portion of children also miss one or more meals a day. While some children's diets are supplemented by breakfast or lunch programs at their schools, this intervention alone is not a long term solution to the availability of food for these communities. 

 

AFFORDABILITY 

Assuming the communities have overcome both the issues of accessibility and availability of food for their families, it is likely that they run into another common cause of food insecurity. The cost of food, especially produce, is usually more expensive in northern Canada for a variety of reasons, namely the high cost of shipping, high spoilage, and scarcity of stock. This makes it very challenging to support a family at all, especially when a household in on a strict budget.  There are frequently no viable alternatives to shopping at the general store, as hunting and gathering for themselves requires resources and finances that many families do not have.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Now that we, as a country, are becoming more aware of the challenges that our neighbours are facing, it is important not to turn a blind eye. While it may become easy to forget the living conditions of people that most Canadians will never see, ignorance is not an option. We need to face all the facts about Canada, not just comfortable ones, to address this food security crisis head on. Canada is so many things, but being indifferent to suffering is not one of them.

Moira Bird