The food desert of the north

In northern Canada, Inuit rely on an annual narwhal hunt to relieve hunger

In northern Canada, Inuit rely on an annual narwhal hunt to relieve hunger
The carcass of a narwhal lies on the beach at Clyde River, Canada.

Rifle fire echoes throughout the bay, signaling surfacing whales. Their dark humps briefly crest in the slight chop, leaving only seconds for hunters to take aim. As freighter canoes tack across the water in pursuit, shrouds of mist pull back, revealing snow-dusted cliffs.

“It is like a war,” Clyde River resident Sam Iqaqrialu says of the autumn narwhal harvest in Canada’s high Arctic.

The pitched battle is a coordinated effort, with spotters on high ground scanning for pods entering the bay and radioing in any movement. The hunt is a vital skirmish for food. Despite living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, Canada’s Inuit struggle with chronic food insecurity. Nearly 70 percent of Inuit homes in the territory of Nunavut experience food insecurity, compared with 8 percent for the country as a whole.

Throughout the hunt, the pendulum of desperation swings to the surrounded whales, then back to the hunters as the animals escape in a deep dive beneath the cold, black inlet waters. For the community — and the whales — the hunt is for nothing less than survival. Soon, however, an appetite for oil will trump the real hunger of the humans.

Hunters speed off through the bay after a surfacing narwhal has been spotted. Andy Hainnu trains his rifle on a narwhal as it surfaces for air, left. The animal is harvested for meat on shore. (Click to enlarge images)

Under the land and water of the Arctic, there is a vast, untouched mineral and resource wealth potentially worth as much as US$15 trillion. Next year a consortium of oil companies and investors plan to blast high-powered air guns along the eastern shores to map oil and gas reserves under the ocean floor. Residents and environmental groups fear the testing will devastate the food sources that communities rely on in this nutrient-starved region.

A chronic problem is about to get even worse.


Map by Alex Newman/Al Jazeera America.

Advocacy groups say Canada is neglecting its obligation to provide access to nutritious and affordable food, a human right guaranteed by the 1996 World Food Summit.

“How many more people have to go hungry for this to change?” says Aaju Peter, a recipient of the Order of Canada, as well as an activist and a lawyer. “I’ve been in communities where I open the refrigerator and it’s empty. There’s absolutely nothing. And there are kids, families in the house going hungry until the hunter brings back the meat.”

In 2013 the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Oliver De Schutter, released a report drawing attention to the dire situation of life in the Arctic. Inuit fare the worst among indigenous groups living in developed nations. “Canada should be ashamed,” wrote The Star, the country’s largest newspaper.

Much of the food security crisis can be traced to the 1950s, when the federal government rounded up transient Inuit communities and forcibly moved them to newly established settlements. The Inuit, intimately familiar with their old hunting areas after a lifetime of learning to read the nuances of the land, were thrown by their new locations. The environment, capable of supporting small roving groups, could not supply larger permanent settlements with enough fresh game.

Today a combination of climate change, government policy and marine contaminants means that food security is a complex issue that resists a single culprit.

“Everyone is looking for a silver bullet,” says George Wenzel, a geography professor at McGill University. Intricacy aside, he says, there are concrete issues to identify.

“The most immediate issue, in terms of food security, is that there aren’t enough hunters who can go out with the frequency that’s needed to produce the volume of food for the populations that these communities now have,” he says.

Every year since 1974, he has spent time in Clyde River, studying the economy and food security issues while watching the area shift from dogsleds to snowmobiles. While some communities have started selling fresh game, Clyde River still operates on a sharing economy; hunters offer meat to anyone in need, with priority placed on elders and kin. Often, hunters are supported by a working partner in the community to cover the high costs of ammunition and fuel. Hunting full time allows them to supply food to the community.

“The ethos of the shared economy is that everyone has a right to food,” says Wenzel.

Jason Hainnu, top left, scans the water for surfacing narwhal. Depending on their age and size, they can often dive for at least 15 minutes. Jason’s nephew Andy, right. After chasing the whale for more than an hour, it is captured, brought to shore, and cut up for food. (Click to enlarge images)

Out on the water, the wind has calmed to a faint breeze. Jason Hainnu and his nephew Andy scan the horizon. Andy, kneeling at the bow, keeps his rifle trained on ripples near the boat. Much of the hunt is waiting, watching and waiting.

Young whales, says Hainnu, don’t usually dive as deep as they are going that day. A heavy silence has replaced the barrage of gunfire. The flotilla of boats hugs the black and white of the shoreline as they wait, a few miles from Clyde River.

Cloistered between the Atlantic Ocean and the high peaks of the Baffin Mountains, it is one of the northernmost communities in the world, slightly south of Barrow, Alaska. There are no roads linking it to other settlements, and travel by boat is difficult on the open ocean. It is serviced only by planes landing on a gravel airstrip every few days.

Despite its isolation, the community is no stranger to international attention. In 1983, the same year television arrived in the community, a European ban on importing seal pelts collapsed the local economy.

“The Inuit were no longer able to make money,” Peter says of the evaporation of their largest market. “The hunter, the one feeding the community himself, is buying the gas and snow machine and everything else on top of that. The ban made it so hard for the hunters.”

The economic losses were amplified over time by high costs of food and a shortage of jobs.

The seal pelt ban threw local economies into disarray. Hunters were unable to afford ammunition and fuel, and the government compensated by pushing for wage labor, removing the ability to hunt full time. The problem persists. Store-bought food makes up a much larger percentage of the Northern diet than it did before the seal pelt ban.

Clyde River's Northern store. The town’s stores have very little healthy, nutritious food for sale. (Click to enlarge images)

Inside the Northern Store, Clyde River’s lone grocery, rows and rows of processed foods surround a small selection of fresh vegetables.

“This is a big improvement from what it used to be,” says Jake Gearheard, the executive director of Ilisaqsivik, a community wellness center providing healthy meals to residents in need.

Before wellness advocates lobbied for healthier items, the vegetable section, like many in other Northern towns, was a scant offering of wilting leaves. Remote geography means food must be flown in. Fresh vegetables, with their much shorter shelf life, are often casualties of long-distance transport. Consequently, residents opt for calorie-packed low-nutrient foods.

“It’s the same from the Arctic to Appalachia. If you have $3 in your pocket, you choose the food with the highest amount of energy,” says Wenzel. “Calories are the currency of life.”

In Clyde River, the majority of calories consumed are from store-bought foods, and the bulk of protein and vitamins come from game.

Nutrition North is a government program designed to reduce the cost of nutritious food through subsidies. Because prices reflect shipping costs, usually eight times that of comparable ground shipping to other remote communities, a grocery store in an Arctic village can be full of pricing anomalies. Milk is only slightly more expensive than in the south, but a 1-liter bottle of water can cost US$7.

In a territory where the median annual income is less than US$15,000, the program has failed in helping families find access to healthy food. Food security has become such a problem that residents in Northern communities ranked it as their biggest priority in the October federal elections, eclipsing Nunavut’s housing crisis and climate change.

There are no roads linking Clyde River to other settlements and travel by boat is difficult on the open ocean. The town is only serviced by planes that land on a gravel airstrip every few days. (Click to enlarge images)

Nourishment in Canada's arctic is a paradox. The region is a food desert, a vast territory with little affordable or nutritious food in the grocery stores. The land is rich in game, but the high costs of hunting means fewer and fewer people can do it successfully. Ammunition costs significantly more in the North, if it can be found at all. Bullets are scarce at the Northern Store. Snowmobiles are a large investment, and gas is expensive.

Northern communities will always face some food insecurity because of their location, cautions Wenzel, but greater investments in hunting would go far to remedy current scarcity. “If you want healthy food at a reasonable price, hunting is the way to go,” he says.

For residents, hunting has always been the accepted approach to securing food. Hainnu remembers learning to live on the land with his dad. “I’m not as good as he was,” he says with a laugh.

Still, as he and his nephew point out the faint tracks of Arctic birds on the rocky shore as their boat speeds by, it's clear that knowledge of the land and the hunt are paramount to life here. Oil exploration could change this.

Aaju Peter is an Inuit activist, lawyer and recipient of the Order of Canada. (Click to enlarge images)

To date, Canada has been wary of Arctic offshore oil. Extraction costs, safety concerns and the logistics of extreme weather have dampened enthusiasm for drilling in the North. But as the ice thins from climate change, the cost calculations are cautiously sliding in favor of exploration and extraction. This push toward energy exploration has Inuit concerned about their few, vulnerable food sources.

Seismic testing involves shooting high-powered blasts of air toward the seafloor to produce a map of possible oil and gas reserves. The testing planned for next year will run all day for months and will likely have an impact on marine mammals.

Community worries are not unfounded. In 2008, when almost a thousand narwhal died after getting trapped in sea ice, biologists established links between seismic testing off the west coast of Greenland and ice entrapment along Baffin Island. While communities were able to harvest 600 whales, the short term gains came at the cost of longer-term worries over the whale population’s health.

When Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine first heard about the proposed seismic testing off the east coast of Baffin Island, he supported it. It meant jobs and royalty dollars flowing into the community, and ultimately raising the standard of living.

“We see other nations in the oil industry, and they’re well off. They’ve got infrastructure, and they make money,” he says. “My thinking was, I want to find out what’s under the water.”

Frustrations abound over sparse infrastructure; there is no cellphone reception, and less than half the population has Internet service. With the prospect of resource development emerging from positive seismic tests, Natanine considered the large influx of investment capital into the community.

The heady talk of money and jobs disappeared after consultation with elders and relatives who worked with seismic testing years ago, north of Baffin Island. Their testimonials about injured marine life quickly dissuaded him.

Arctic char, seal and narwhal are served up at a free community feast in Iqaluit, the territorial capital, left. Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine. (Click to enlarge images)

Now Natanine, the municipality and the Hunters and Trappers Organization are co-plaintiffs in a legal challenge to prevent the consortium from blasting air guns at the ocean floor. They originally sought the help of Inuit-led organizations but were turned down because of the costs associated with what would likely be a lengthy legal battle.

Natanine turned to Greenpeace. He and others in the region grew up hating the organization, which was largely responsible for turning seal-hunting communities into international pariahs — a campaign that deeply affected Clyde River.

“The people who ran that campaign didn’t think that the work they were doing on the east coast would have that impact,” says Farrah Khan, Greenpeace’s Arctic campaigner. “It caused a lot of pain. It caused a lot of hurt that lasts until today.”

She traveled from Toronto to Clyde River in September to meet with residents and offer the organization’s political and financial support.

“This is their home. They’re the ones who should be leading the charge, not us,” says Khan. “People are saying, ‘No one is listening to us. No one is willing to listen to us, even when we tell the truth.’ It’s their food source and traditions that are at stake.” 

Greenpeace sees oil exploration as a direct threat to the right to food. It has joined with a number of Inuit communities in turning Clyde River into a rallying cry in the fight against food insecurity. In a public statement last year, the group announced its support for indigenous whale hunting and agreed to pay the community’s legal costs in what could end up being a Canadian Supreme Court challenge.

Andy Hainnu rests after a day on the water. (Click to enlarge images)

The case has the elements necessary to be heard by the country’s highest court. Most important, it would be the first Supreme Court case from Nunavut, and its implications have national importance.

“If they get a favorable ruling, it would have huge implications for indigenous groups fighting oil exploration,” says Khan.

Problematically for the Inuit, the site of the seismic testing is outside Inuit-owned lands and is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. However, because there is a potential negative impact on marine life, Inuit must be consulted. The extent to which a community must be consulted and accommodated is the driving issue in the case. In a previous ruling at the Federal Court of Appeals, the justices ruled that a company seeking to engage in consultation need not obtain the consent of the community if all the proper licensing is in place.

Clyde River’s struggles are reflective of the territory’s broader choice to rely on the land for food rather than develop its resources for money. With Nunavut’s territory status, it is unable to generate a significant amount of income and relies on funding from the federal government. To become self-sufficient, its future relies on the very development that its residents fear will harm their food supply.

“They’re our wildlife. We will defend them when we need to,” says Natanine.

The whale blubber is distributed to elders and relatives, top left. Hunter Larry Kautuk, right, got the first whale of the day. The muqtuq, or blubber, is especially valued for its vitamin content, fat and protein. (Click to enlarge images)

When hunter Larry Kautuk’s first kill is announced over the radio, the channel broadcasts a burst of requests. Some ask for a piece of the blubber, or muqtuq, which is rich in vitamins A, D and E as well as crucial fats and protein. On a shore outside the town, boats converge at a graveyard strewn with the bones of previous hunts. The men skin a second whale, taken by Hainnu’s cousin. They slice through the rubbery skin, parceling off palm-size squares. Attached to the skin is the chewy, bubble-gum-colored fat. As the men pile up blocks of skin, the mood is jovial; they joke between bites of muqtuq, playfully scuffling over the best pieces. The economy of hunting, says Wenzel, has the structural obligation to share. Without this, the odds of community survival would be bleak.

“The federal government is not helping us. The Nunavut legislature is not helping us to survive,” says Peter. “The hunters are the ones making sure, as they always have, that there’s food on the table.”

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Next in this series

Opening the Canadian Arctic

Inuit worry about waning sea ice and rising ship traffic through the Northwest Passage

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