Food security is a serious concern in Inuit communities in Canada. According to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Inuit organization, food insecurity is at crisis levels in all four Inuit regions of Canada: Nunatsiavut (Labrador), Nunavik (Northern Quebec), Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the North West Territories. In Nunavut, 70% of Inuit adults live in food insecure households. This is eight times the national average of food insecurity in Canada. This is also the highest documented rate of food insecurity of any indigenous population, not only in Canada, but in any developed country. Inuit food security is a complex and multifaceted problem. Some of the primary challenges are high food costs, a lack of access to nutritious foods, low income in Inuit families, changing dietary habits, the cost of equipment needed to harvest and hunt traditional foods, and industry and climate change. Food sovereignty is also an issue in Inuit communities. It is important that the Inuit have access to healthy and traditional food.
The United Nations defines food security as a “situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” In Inuit communities, there is a lack of access to healthy foods and culturally appropriate foods. This is a serious physical and mental health concern. Adults who are food insecure have a higher rate of heart disease, diabetes, and depression. For children, food insecurity has negative effects on development, including cognitive, academic and psychosocial development. According to a study done by the Inuit Nunavut Children Health Survey, 36% of preschool aged children are severely food insecure, meaning that they did not have enough food and had to either skip meals or only eat small meals. It’s common in Inuit households for parents, in particular mothers, will go without eating so that their children can eat. Food security also threatens the economic development and social stability of communities, and thus even impacts those who are food secure.
CAUSES OF FOOD INSECURITY
One of the biggest barriers to food security in Inuit communities is food cost. This is because of remote locations of communities. As a result, food must be brought in by boat or plane. As well, infrastructure costs are much higher in the North. This leads to food prices at grocery stores that are higher than anywhere else in Canada. For example, in Kugaarak, Nunavut the average basket of goods to maintain a healthy and balanced diet for a family of four costs $327 per week. This is double what the same basket would cost in Edmonton, Alberta. The price of the basket in Inuit communities is not affordable for three-quarters of families. The average cost of food per year is $19,760 while almost 50% of adults earn less than $20,000 per year. Due to low income, high costs of food are especially problematic.
Another issue is a lack of access to perishable foods, like fruit and vegetables. Because of distance, perishables often spoil. This means that these healthy foods are extremely expensive. Due to infrequent food deliveries, there is insufficient and erratic access to store bought food, especially healthy food which may go bad, further diminishing Inuit communities’ access to healthy food. The population in Inuit regions is increasing and large family sizes are common, making the availability of food an increasing concern. Food prices have been the source of protests in Inuit communities.
Access to traditional foods, or country foods, is culturally important to Inuit communities and has a major impact on food security. It is very nutritious. This includes foods like caribou, fish, seal meat and berries. According to the Child Inuit Health Survey, many of the vitamin deficiencies which are common among Inuit children can be fixed with traditional foods. Equipment costs are a large barrier for many Inuit people in accessing country foods. This includes things like the price of gas for machines such as snowmobiles. Changing environmental conditions is a problem for accessing country foods. This affects traditional practices and diminishes the amount of wildlife as well as its distribution in the area to be hunted. Similarly, environmental contaminants from industry and pollution affects the ability of the Inuit people to eat traditional foods, especially fish.
Lack of knowledge about healthy food is a problem in Inuit communities. This is in part due to diets changing from traditional practices, loss of cultural knowledge, and lack of education. As a result, limited nutritional knowledge, food preparation skills and budgeting skills increase food insecurity. Many buy unhealthy food from grocery stores due to inaccessibility of healthy food or lack of knowledge about it. As well, issues of gambling and substance abuse aggravate food insecurity.
In addition, the two most Northern Inuit communities are the result of a forced relocation program. During the Cold War in the 1950’s, the Canadian government “lured” Inuit 2,000 km away from their traditional communities to serve as “human flagpoles” in order to maintain an area which the United States and Russia dispute being Canadian. This isolation and movement away from traditional land exasperates food insecurity
ADDRESSING FOOD INSECURITY
For Canada to consider itself a country which provides for the needs of its citizens and protects the rights of all, food security in the North must be addressed. It is crucial that Canada better addresses the needs of indigenous groups, while allowing the agency for effective and de-colonial solutions to be created. There are many initiatives from within Inuit communities which work toward Inuit food security in each of the four Inuit regions. According to ITK, there are 26 community-based initiatives across the four regions. These include food banks, community gardens and kitchens, prenatal programs, soup kitchens, and commercial hunts. These initiatives are affecting real change within communities. They are continuing to strengthen Inuit culture, health, and food security.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet claim that it is a priority to decolonize Canada and build a stronger relationship with Canada’s indigenous communities. In truth, rather than investing in indigenous communities, the Canadian government is approving new pipelines and investing in big business. The rate of Inuit food insecurity is unacceptable. It is indicative of Canada’s continued mistreatment of indigenous populations and failing to uphold their rights.
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