Can you imagine spending $12 for just a few slices of watermelon? In the Canadian territory of Nunavut, shipping costs continue to drive up the cost of food while residents slide further into poverty. Can community members use a Facebook group to solve the problem?
Leesee Papatsie stands in her kitchen, slicing whale and arctic char on sheets of recycled cardboard laid across the table. Her steady hand rolls a small curved blade, a traditional arctic knife called an ulu, in quick but calculated strokes.
Papatsie, a mother of five in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada's largest territory, calls her family over to eat, stealing bites for herself as she chops. Arctic char is one of the primary fish caught in the bays around the area – Papatsie prepares it raw, like the whale. Narwhal skin and blubber make up a dish called muktuk, a traditional Inuit delicacy that has a thick, rich taste, like penne noodles in butter. Today, her family dips it in soy sauce. Dried fish and muktuk are just a few of the "country foods" of the north and are part of the traditional diet of the Nunavummiut people that has sustained them for the last 4,000 years. This particular meal has a dual purpose: it’s an edible homage to Papatsie's Inuit heritage and is one of the only ways to avoid soaring food prices at local stores.
Nunavut is the largest Canadian territory and the only one inaccessible to the rest of North America by highway. As such, the high costs of transportation drive up prices on any goods that aren’t produced locally. That means it's staggeringly expensive to live here, which becomes obvious in the community's grocery aisles where four slices of prepackaged watermelon can cost upwards of $12 and heads of cabbage can climb to more than $28.
In early June, Papatsie created the "Feeding My Family " Facebook group to bring attention to the high cost of keeping food on family tables across Nunavut. It's since attracted more than 20,000 members who have organized protests outside of local stores, promoted a return to traditional diets and generated a global press cycle. "I'm worried about the kids that go to bed hungry," Papatsie says. "I worry about the elders going hungry. I'm going to keep going until the people start to stand up."
If you were to meet her in person, it might be easy to underestimate Papatsie. She's slight of built and speaks in a soft voice, often remaining silent until she's got something to say. However in these moments she transforms. She's direct, focused and composed, which might take you by surprise if you haven't seen her fearless, affecting writing inside "Feeding My Family." "Let's show how Inuit, doesn't matter where they are from, what we are made of," she posted recently, thanking the some 20,000 members for their support and action around the issue.
Calling people to action seems to come natural to Papatsie, even her name means "protector." Surnames, another import from the south, were adopted after the government did away with disc numbers, the identification numbers given to the Inuit after they first came to live in the territory’s settlements. “In the 20s and 30s, there was major hunger going on all over because of scarcity of country food,” says Papatsie’s cousin Leetia Janes. “Our grandfather was from Northern Quebec and he used to run from community to community to make sure everyone had something to eat and if they didn't he would provide for them.”
Inside "Feeding My Family," this legacy has gone digital. Members now use the group as a community activism command center, comparing food prices from across Nunavut, collaborating on proposals for local food banks and soup kitchens, encouraging one another to add as much country food as they can to their diet by sharing hunting and carving tips and brainstorming solutions to the food waste they see happening in some local businesses.
The problem is that there isn't just one problem. To really understand the situation and just how upset people are, Papatsie says, you've got to know the rocky backstory of Nunavut's settlement and the decades of distrust that have lingered across the territory as a result. Lured into a westernized way of Inuit life only a generation ago, the transformation altered a centuries-old way of eating and has separated the people of north from the land. Importing a lifestyle, particularly to a place just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is pricey.
This week, Israel Mablick is trying to stretch one can of Beefaroni over multiple lunches.
The Inuit father of five sits in the living room of his mother's two bedroom apartment, describing the frustrating experience of filling his role as a father, a husband and a son inside a community where unemployment has reached 16%. "Some people are lucky to get government jobs," he says. "As for myself, even though I have six years of experience with the parks of Nunavut, sometimes I'm told that my skills are too high." He sighs and shifts on the couch where he sits with his kids, who are glued to a live-action remake of Peter Pan playing on the TV.
The two-bedroom house is small; Mablick and his wife Donna share one bedroom with their children, and his mother occupies the other. Eight people to an apartment may be cramped, but in Nunavut it's not unusual to see up to 16 people under one roof. But the Mablicks, like so many other families in Nunavut, worry less about space and more about where they'll find their next meals.
"They're asking for the regular meals that we normally get, but we can't afford them. We ask them to eat something else, but they won't. It makes it a little more difficult. I tell them when I get paid, I'll buy it."
Mablick works a few nights a week as a security guard, earning just $15 an hour. He says it's something, but in an area where the average household spends more than $12,000 on food every year, part-time work can't provide for a family. Each day, Mablick calls or texts his supervisor about picking up extra hours, but usually there aren't any extra shifts to go around. "If I work two nights a week for two weeks, that's about $400 pay, and that's not enough," he says. He's taken a second job, driving a delivery truck for a local florist. But they haven't called in three months.
Mablick and his mother split the grocery shopping on payday, carefully budgeting food and buying only what stretches, what won't go bad after a few days. Luckily, he says, his kids love rice. "We try to be calm and polite to the children when we're explaining things," Mablick says. "They're asking for the regular meals that we normally get, but we can't afford them. We ask them to eat something else, but they won't. It makes it a little more difficult. I tell them when I get paid, I'll buy it."
Mablick says he’s active in the Facebook group so that he can educate people down south about the costs of raising a family in Nunavut. His family has even been "adopted" by a woman living in Ottawa, who has sent up boxes of non-perishable food and necessities like diapers. His in-laws were also adopted by a woman in the U.S.
Recognizing the high transportation costs, the Canadian government has always subsidized food in Nunavut. But because families have needed to stretch their budgets, they buy mostly non-perishables items like peanut butter, Cheez Whiz and cereal. As diets shifted from wild fish, berries and game to empty carbs and processed meals, health among the Inuit communities deteriorated; recent reports say diabetes is on the rise.
This year, major changes were introduced to the subsidy program. The new subsidy, Nutrition North Canada, supports healthier foods and perishable items like dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables. While the program is already in place, some non-perishables and non-food items are still under the old program until October 1 to ease the transition – a date that seems to loom over the communities as people brace for even higher costs.
Despite the subsidies, Mablick and the other members of Feeding my Family have organized protests to encourage stores to lower prices. But Madeline Redfern, the mayor of Iqaluit, says retailers shouldn’t be blamed. "It's expensive to run a store in the north," she says. "It's not only the cost of the food, which they have to ship up, usually by plane on a daily basis. There's the high cost of contraction, the high cost of actually running the business with heating and lights. You have to pay your employees more in the north than you do in the south – and it is a business."
Instead, Redern wants to see more focus on communication and modifying the programs already in place to better serve the community. "Food insecurity in the north is complicated," she says. "It's not only access to country food or the high cost associated with that, it's the graduation rate – 75% of our kids don't graduate – we have a lot of people who are living in poverty. There are training and higher education opportunities but people don't know how to access those. You have to be aware of them and fill out the applications pretty much on your own.”
"You can't feed your snowmobile a seal. You can't feed it fish. It needs gas and that means cash."
And while it’s a struggle to educate Iqaluit’s population about new opportunities, it’s equally difficult to continue local traditions. Mablick, for example, doesn't hunt. It's not that he doesn't know how; he was taught by his father and grandfather. He says can't afford it. Access to country food is more difficult in Iqaluit than in some other communities around Nunavut. As the capital city, Iqaluit is by far the most urbanized place in the territory, attracting people for the same reasons all cities attract new residents: work, culture or an appetite for something bigger. In Nunavut, this means many in Iqaluit are away from their homes and away from their family networks that traditionally play a huge role in the Inuit culinary process, a system based on food sharing. In the city, ironically, more people are on their own. Hunters are still vital to the culture of the north, but as hunters are required to travel increasingly further away from their homes to find animals – climate change has had a notable impact on animal migration patterns in the arctic north – their roles as harvesters become full-time tasks.
"Hunters today, unlike the past, need access to a cash economy," says Will Hyndman, the founder of Project Nunavut, a local hunter's market held in Iqaluit once a month. The market allows local harvesters to sell some of what they kill, giving communities members access to country food and (hopefully) providing hunters with enough pocket money to fund their next trip. In the past, Inuit hunters relied on dog sled teams for transportation during hunting trips, feeding their animals part of their catch. Today, hunters travel mostly via snowmobiles and boats. "You can't feed your snowmobile a seal," Hyndman says. "You can't feed it fish. It needs gas and that means cash."
Markets like Hyndman's could help ease the sting of Nunavut's main commercial weakness: its lack of adequate infrastructure. Northerners must live culturally mixed lives, an ostensibly attractive blend of southern convenience and northern traditionalism. But the reality is that they live inside a southern economy, southern education system and southern municipal infrastructure that ultimately come with nearly insurmountable differences.
Leetia Janes first came to Apex, a small settlement just a few miles from Iqaluit (called Frobisher Bay then) in the 1960s. Under a perceived threat from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Canada decided to establish a territory in the north as a safety precaution. Inuits from Northern Quebec and the southern Baffin Region were relocated, some voluntary and some forced, and sent to live in small settlements. For these Inuit, and almost everyone else, the decision to move into the settlement was not a decision to abandon traditional practices; it was a way to relieve some of the pressures of living life off the land, while also taking advantage of settlement services.
While Inuit were willingly enticed into the settlements, they didn't expect the impact on their culture, language or nutritional intake that came with settlement living. "We were in an outpost camp and put into a community,” Janes says. “My father couldn't afford to feed the whole family. Since I was his oldest, I had no choice to go to work and help provide for the family.” She was 13 years old when she first went to work at the Hudson Bay Company.
"It's like we've lost our compass… We were taught to survive and in order to survive we had such strict, holistic rules."
Janes is Papatsie's first cousin and she, along with with Papatsie's sister, Louisa Willoughby, are still gathered around the kitchen table talking about their childhood, and admiring a pair of real kamiks (handmade sealskin boots) that Papatsie bought for Willoughby's grandson. They occasionally slide into their native Inuktitut, a soothing language full of rich guttural tones. "In smaller communities, they're still teaching them how to sew like this but in Iqaluit, we have to go to school to learn how to sew like this," Willoughby says. "I can sew, but not these."
While it's an obvious sign of the degree to which traditional Inuit skills have dwindled in just one generation, it's also a sign that Inuit women have less work to do. "That's why we were grateful for rubber boots," Janes says, laughing. "It alleviated a lot of responsibility for the woman."
But modernity brings new challenges. The women say Northerners are strong because of their commitment to each other and allowing families in their communities to go hungry betrays one of the most sacred Inuit beliefs: mutual survival. "It's like we've lost our compass," Janes says. "Inuit are very morally obligated to authority. We have this very strong need to follow the straight and narrow. We were taught to survive and in order to survive we had such strict, holistic rules."
Traditionally to speak up is be labeled an outcast or a trouble maker, but Papatsie says she’s moving past that. "We have to work with what we have – new technology – and combine it with the Inuit way," she says. One of the strongest lingering feelings among the Inuit people subjected to relocations is powerlessness, a feeling of inadequacy they've begun to patch up since Nunavut was created under a land claim in 1999 and turned back over to its indigenous peoples.
"Inuit are taking their lives back," says Janes. "Inuit are speaking up and they're taking ownership of their communities, whereas we were just waiting for somebody else to start something. It was like that for years. Waiting for other people to start, but nobody ever starts. And a lot of people I would never think would speak out are speaking out."
Willoughby agrees. "I wouldn't be able to speak out in public," she says. "If you put a camera in front of me, I'm frozen."
It may have taken more than half a century, but people of Nunavut are talking again – and they're using modern technology to fight what modern progress has wrought.