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Food-Cost Protests in Northern Canada

Submitted by on June 11, 2012 – 8:51 pm 9 Comments |  
Major protests against the high price of food and economic insecurity more generally were held last weekend in the remote northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, inhabited mostly by Inuit (“Eskimo”) people. Organized on Facebook, the “Feed My Family” campaign has attracted roughly a third of Nunavut’s population.  A recent study found that some “three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes, and that “half of youths 11 to 15 years old sometimes go to bed hungry.” Food is exorbitantly expensive in Nunavut because almost all of it must be brought in over vast distances from southern Canada or elsewhere. As a result, a single head of cabbage can cost as much as twenty dollars.

Nunavut is a vast territory, roughly the size of Mexico, but it contains only about 32,000 people, some 84 percent of whom are Inuit. Traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices are still carried out and contribute to feeding the population, but most of the people of the region are now dependent on imported food. Hunting, moreover, now demands modern inputs, and hence is itself an expensive proposition. According the article cited above:

Nunavut’s larder of “country food” — caribou, seals, fish and other animals — is there for the taking, but only if people can afford the snowmobiles, gas, rifles, ammunition and gear needed to travel safely. Elliott estimates hunting costs about $150 a day.

Although a poor region by Canadian standards, Nunavut does possess a large array of natural resources, and mining activities in the territory are increasing. Currently the Canadian government is negotiating with territorial leaders to allow Nunavut to have “province-like” powers over local resource development and to collect mining royalties directly. As a recent National Post article emphasizes, “Mining companies spent more than $300 million in 2011 alone on exploration and development in the territory…”  Yet the same article also notes that “years of negotiations are likely to follow.”

Many Inuit leaders support mining in their territory, but most insist that their community should have substantial input in the development process. Most of their efforts in this regard are carried out through Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., a native corporation designed to “ensure that promises made under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) are carried out. Inuit exchanged Aboriginal title to all their traditional land in the Nunavut Settlement Area for the rights and benefits set out in the NLCA.” In April of this year, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. “received the first royalty payment as a result of mineral production on Inuit Owned Lands. The royalty payment of $2,249,500 was made by Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. from its Meadowbank Gold Mine north of Baker Lake.”

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Rosa/1593565364 Peter Rosa

    Well, heck.  You live in an area far from any roads and with a climate ill-suited to agriculture, what do you expect?  

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      They used to survive on hunting, didn’t they?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

        I wonder whether they haven’t given up eating the parts of the animals that their ancestors used to.  I know that Central Asian nomads can live on a purely animal diet, but they have to eat a great deal of organ meats to get the vitamins the rest of us more omnivorous types get from plants.  I assume that, in the past, they weren’t trading for cabbages from the South.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          I was surprised to find that “hunting now demands modern inputs”. Not sure why. And yes, the Eskimo used to eat a lot of organ meat and blood. Whether they still do, I don’t know, though I did see them still do it on TV some time ago. Whether that was putting up a show or what is really going on, I can’t tell.

          • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

            Hunting demands modern inputs largely because many of the old skills have been lost, as they were often very demanding. Also, the traditional way of life involved high mortality rates!  From what I have heard, organ meat is still considered a delicacy. Sometimes, modern materials undermine traditional dietary practices. One of my graduate school colleagues worked with the Yupik people of Alaska and told me how their delicacy called “stink flipper” once became deadly when someone decided to “cure” the seal flippers in plastic bags rather than fiber containers. 

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Fascinating! Once the traditional lifestyle is abandoned is very hard or even impossible to go back to it. I’ve been thinking about this issue when we were writing about indigenous inhabitants of the Siberian north.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Good point, as food prices are high in all semi-isolated Arctic communities. But the question is whether they are higher in Nunavut than in similar places. They may be, although I have by no means run a systematic comparison. See this website (http://www.ktuu.com/gotoak/ktuu-photo-gallery-arctic-food-prices-the-cost-of-living-in-barrow-alaska-20110629,0,6727209) for a photogallery of  sample of grocery prices in Barrow, Alaska. They are high, but they don’t seem as outrageous as what one supposedly finds in Nunavut. A 2008 USA Today article (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-08-06-gas_N.htm), however, claimed that the cost of heating oil has become a “matter of survival” in Barrow. The cost of living is also high in Greenland, but again it does not seem nearly as outrageous as the situation in Nunavut. See http://www.xpatulator.com/cost-of-living-review/Greenland-Nuuk_239.cfm.  But again, more research is needed!

  • George Gauthier

    They cannot feed themselves because they have no agriculture nor any arable land, living as they do  in the Arctic. With no real economy to speak of, aside from government handouts, they have nothing to exchange for imports from the South.which will always be expensive because of high transport costs. Now they want a big cut of revenues from mining and industrial development toward which they themselves will contribute nothing — no capital — no technology, not even labor. In other words, they will go on a permanent dole like the citizens of oil producing countries in the Middle East. They really should move to a more habitable area of Canada where food costs are lower and support themselves. 

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      I agree that living on the dole is a major problem. The Inuit would argue, however, that they what they are contributing to the deal is their ancestral lands. I doubt that many would be willing to move to more temperate parts of Canada, although it would be very interesting to see how many have already done so.