the north face down ‘We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist anymore’
In his freezer, there are a few bags of frozen vegetables next to a carton of Chapman’s ice cream. Two cereal boxes Corn Pops and Corn Flakes are the only items in one of his cupboards.
“That’s all we have,” Mablick says, “and there’s six kids.”
The 36 year old Inuit man shares a small, two bedroom Iqaluit apartment with his wife and their five kids, his mother, his sister and his young nephew. His is the face of hunger in Nunavut, the bare cupboards and empty fridge emblematic of a long standing problem that even today’s government programs don’t address.
The federal government’s $60 million food subsidy, Nutrition North, is only the latest of the proposed solutions that has stumbled under mismanagement and the enormity of the hunger problem.
Whether a solution can be found is anyone’s guess. After all, food shortages are nothing new to the Inuit.”There’s always been incidents of starvation,” said Frank Tester, an Arctic historian at the University of British Columbia.
One of the worst episodes occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when a shift in caribou migration patterns caused widespread starvation in the southern interior of the Kivalliq Region to the west of Hudson Bay.
The collapse of the fox fur trade after the Second World War was devastating to the Inuit, who relied on it as a source of income to buy flour, tea, sugar, hunting traps, rifles and ammunition.
“Economically, Inuit were now in really serious trouble,” Tester said.
In some cases, Inuit were relocated to other parts of the North with more abundant natural resources.
“Inuit were moved around. The attitude was, ‘Well, you know, what the hell? They can survive any place there’s snow and caribou and foxes to be had,'” said Tester, who has studied and written about the relocations.
But such relocations proved controversial. There was a royal commission in the 1990s. Ottawa eventually agreed to pay $10 million into a trust fund to compensate the families of the Inuit who, in the 1950s, were moved 2,000 kilometres from Inukjuak in northern Quebec to what is now Resolute and Grise Fiord, the two most northerly communities in Canada
In 2010, then aboriginal affairs minister John Duncan apologized on the government’s behalf for the Inukjuak relocations.
But having Canadian civilians in an otherwise unoccupied area bolstered Canadian sovereignty at a time when other nations especially the United States were expressing increasing interest in the Arctic as a possible front in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
To monitor the continent’s northern frontier, Canada and the United States built 63 radar stations across the Arctic, stretching from Alaska to Baffin Island. The Distant Early Warning Line sites had a major impact on northern society. The stations and the southerners who staffed them were sometimes the first contact Inuit people had with the outside world.
A change in government policy in the 1950s and 1960s led to an upheaval of the traditional Inuit way of life, Tester said.
“By the mid 1950s, the government sort of saw what they thought was the handwriting on the wall,” he said, “that Inuit were going to have to be modernized instead of kept in their traditional lifestyle.”
Thus began the sweeping change from a traditional Inuit way of life. Having a job meant there was now pressure on Inuit workers to maintain a steady income to support their families. That made it difficult to hunt, since people now had to travel long distances from their communities to find game.
Not being able to hunt meant Inuit had to buy their own food, either from stores or local hunters.
Food has always been expensive in the North. The population is relatively small and scattered across a vast region far from the major transportation hubs. Shipping costs are exorbitant particularly in Nunavut, where there aren’t any roads to connect the territory’s communities to the rest of Canada.
The high cost of shipping food to the North put some items beyond the reach of many people.
In an effort to make food more affordable, the federal government started the Northern Air Stage Program better known as Food Mail in the 1960s to subsidize shipping costs.
The subsidy shifted to retailers when Nutrition North replaced Food Mail in 2011. The new program gives retailers a subsidy based on the weight of eligible foods shipped to eligible communities.
But auditor general Michael Ferguson recently found the Aboriginal Affairs Department did not choose eligible communities based on need. Instead, communities were chosen based on whether they had year round road access and if they had used the old Food Mail program.
Those that made very little use of the program are only eligible for a partial subsidy, while those that did not use it aren’t eligible at all.
“Consequently, community eligibility is based on past usage instead of current need,” the audit says.
“As a result, there may be other isolated northern communities, not benefiting from the subsidy, where access to affordable, nutritious food may be an issue.”
Aboriginal Affairs told Ferguson’s team it has looked at expanding the full subsidy to around 50 fly in northern communities, but doing so would increase the cost of the program by $7 million a year.