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What’s behind the high cost of food in Canada’s North?

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Food insecurity in the Northwest Territories remains a pressing issue

High food prices in the Northwest Territories aren’t new, but what isn’t often talked about is the struggle many across the territory face to simply eat. In Inuvik, a trucker comes up from B.C. every two weeks to sell fresh produce from his truck—but he can’t make it year-round. Remote communities throughout the N.W.T. increasingly rely on food banks. Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, population 117, receives government funding to feed its homeless people. Wrigley, population 153, Paulatuk, 327, and Ulukhaktok, 428, do the same.

Myriad factors mean these Arctic hamlets need food banks: The high costs of operating grocery stores in the North, climate change, the decline of wild foods (called country food in the North), cultural change, resource extraction, and environmental contamination create a situation where food is inaccessible. In a territory where borders have changed drastically since Canada was created, big changes continue to occur.

Indigenous people make up exactly half the N.W.T.’s population of 44,469, with most non-Indigenous living in the city of Yellowknife.

“People were largely self-sufficient,” says France Benoit, president of the Yellowknife Farmer’s Market. “But then what happened is when they put the road in, it’s no different than anywhere else in Canada—all of a sudden, food is being trucked from elsewhere.”

In Inuvik, population 3,140, there is one food bank, a homeless shelter, and a community lunch program. At the food bank, demand is outstripping donations so community members now must pay small sums for discounted flats of food. According to a 2013 peer-reviewed paper by James D. Ford, the town has a food insecurity rate of 43 percent—five times the Canadian average.

Benoit says colonial settlement deeply affected food systems in the N.W.T. “[Indigenous groups] were going to the barren lands and then coming back according to the seasons,” she says. “They were using entire areas.” When the N.W.T. was created, various cultural groups were forced together into settlements. In the past, “people were able to take care of each other.”

While game, fish, and berries remain central to many people’s diets, only 14 percent of N.W.T. households get more than three-quarters of their meat and fish directly from the land. Most people in the N.W.T. would like to eat more of it, especially caribou, a traditional staple. But, according to the State of Rural Canada, a 2015 report by non-profit Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, these foods aren’t as plentiful now. The Bathurst caribou, for example, that roam near the arctic hamlets that now have food banks, have declined from roughly 450,000 animals in the mid-1980s to around 20,000 today.

And now that most people rely on food from grocery stores, high costs are a looming issue. Duane Wilson of Arctic Co-operatives, the support centre for grocery co-ops across the territory, worked in food transportation in the co-op for years.

Building a store that sells to a limited number of people, with utilities up to 10 times more expensive while you store a year’s worth of goods in a heated warehouse, is challenging, he says. And on top of it when something breaks you might need to fly an expert in.

“And we’re going to expect that it’s going to have the same prices as the Walmart Supercentre. Does that sound reasonable to you?”

Ice roads are also more expensive to truck on. Seasonal road and ferry closures mean most N.W.T. communities need to fly their supplies in at least part of the time. Others use marine barges, though the lack of developed ports means it’s costlier. And climate change is altering some harbours, making access even harder. It’s expensive to transport supplies to build new stores. Electricity is five to 10 times more in parts of the North, according to a 2015 government-commissioned study on Northern food retail.

“Many of the co-op retail operations actually are done at a loss to serve their community,” says Wilson. “This truly is life and death for people.”

Despite this, at least some food remains affordable. In Yellowknife, gala apples go for $1.99 a pound. At NorthMart in Inuvik, they’re $3.17 a pound. Prices checked in May 2017 on pears, eggs, milk, and yogurt in both locations were similarly comparable. As the State of Rural Canada report points out however, the standard cost of basic food items is often higher.

Laura Rose manages the Hay River soup kitchen (population 2,728). Despite increasing reliance on the food bank in her community, she points to positive happenings in the N.W.T. “There’s more gardening and growing one’s own food in some of the different communities that’s starting to take off,” she says. “The green thumb bug is catching on with people.”

There’s the Inuvik community greenhouse, dubbed the most northerly greenhouse in North America, housing community plots and a commercial portion.

In Hay River, the non-profit Northern Farm Training Institute has a mission to empower people to restore Northern food systems. Benoit praises Yellowknife organization Food Rescue that collects grocery store food before it’s thrown out and redistributes it to community organizations.

“The land, plants, animals, and humans hold a kin interrelationship that has consummated livelihoods for generations,” reads the State of Rural Canada report on the N.W.T. “Resilience is central to this landscape.” May it be so.

 

This article was first published in the July/Aug 2017 issue of This Magazine. https://this.org/2017/07/25/whats-behind-the-high-cost-of-food-in-canadas-north/

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2017 Kick-Ass Activist: Peyton Straker

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For Yellowknife’s Indigenous youth looking to learn more about their cultures, Peyton Straker highlights the importance of land-based education

Peyton Straker was a five-time high-school dropout when she took a job as an Indigenous support worker at the public school board in Yellowknife. Straker, 23 and Anishinaabe, knew from experience many of the ways the education system failed her. As a youth she felt displaced in schools where she couldn’t see herself reflected in the curriculum, and often instead of feeling supported, Straker got the message in school that she was somehow a problem.

When the job first came up online, Straker thought, “That sounds terrible, and I also am really under-qualified for that,” she says. She applied anyway, hoping to make a positive change. “Two weeks later I was starting the job.”

Straker began reading and learning about land-based education when she was 17. She completed an intensive immersion course at the Northwest Territory’s Dechinta Bush University, where she camped in a small isolated group, studying decolonization and experienced her first moose hunt. “Seeing the way that being on the land informs your decolonization process and your identity was what made me decide that that was what I wanted to do,” she says.

When the new position required bringing absent students back to school, Straker decided instead to go about creating something new. But it wasn’t easy. In her first days on the job she inquired about her budget. The response: “You don’t have one.” As the only person in a job that no one had ever done, Straker turned her focus toward getting what she wanted: money to improve cultural education for youth. Though she had never filled out a funding application before, she raised enough to buy a snowmobile and other supplies, and gave birth to the Traditional Mentorships Program.

The program’s purpose was to connect youth more deeply with land-based ways of life, and nurture cultural resilience. Run by and for Indigenous people, Straker saw it as an opportunity to create something she didn’t have when she was young. At first, she wrestled with questions about the school system: “Is a conventional colonial space really a space for decolonization?” she asked. “But whether or not I think that it’s the appropriate place, it’s where the kids are.”

Most teachers and parents were supportive. The students in the program would leave class from half a day to overnight to take part. “The teachers were not worried about them missing their book work,” Straker says. “It didn’t mean they got extra homework. It was just part of their week, and it was valued just as much as their science class.”

Although most of her students had some traditional knowledge, Straker noticed it was patchy. She wanted the program to give youth tangible skills they could use into adulthood. “The whole point of our knowledge systems is to pass them on,” she says. From trapping and fishing to Inuit games, the students immersed themselves in opportunities, including a week-long moose-hide tanning camp. “We also wanted to give the students the opportunity to see that the land isn’t far off, it’s not way out there somewhere,” she adds. “We live in Yellowknife. You walk across the street and you’re on one of the biggest lakes in the world.”

Straker was able to grow the program and hire one of her own former instructors, Kyle Enzoe, to teach. “It was an opportunity for us to also create jobs within the community for people who have knowledge that you can’t put a number on,” says Straker. “It’s very hard to get paid to share your traditional knowledge.”

Enzoe’s involvement gave the kids in grades 6 to 8 an opportunity to connect with someone not much older— Enzoe was 33—who was both deeply traditional and modern at once. Enzoe holds the most knowledge of anyone she knows when it comes to the land and trapping. At the same time, “He has Facebook,” Straker says.

Since its inception, the Traditional Mentorships Program has had a far reach. Straker often presents about land-based education at conferences. After seeing the positive changes this type of education had in her own life, she wants to do the same for others. “I’ve seen my life completely transform and change the more that I’ve fostered my reciprocal relationship with the land,” she says.

Although land-based education can seem trivial to some, without it Straker says she wouldn’t have ever understood why land matters. “I didn’t see myself within the land, and I didn’t see the land within myself,” she says.

She has seen similar transformations in others. “All of our collective issues within the Indigenous community—none of them exist without the land, and without land disputes.” Any conversation meant to further reconcilitation or create spaces for Indigenous youth must involve a land base, she says. Still, there is a lack of funding for such education.

If the government wants to make more money, Straker says, educating people puts them in a higher tax bracket, and that’s what land-based education has the capacity to do. “It can change our economy and our knowledge economy in the North,” she says.“Funding is really, really necessary, and it’s hard to get our hands on.”

Aside from her work at the school board, Straker also spends time making jewelry from animals she and Enzoe have harvested using traditional protocol. She’s also part of a collective called ReMatriate that works to interrupt culturally appropriative fashion and take back control over Indigenous women’s visual identities. Straker’s work is a powerful reminder of the importance of the land and its place in people’s lives—another reason for greater education.

First published in Jan/Feb 2017 issue of This Magazine

https://this.org/2017/01/25/2017-kick-ass-activist-peyton-straker/

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