IQALUIT, Nunavut – A head of cabbage for $20. Fifteen bucks for a small bag of apples.
A case of ginger ale: $82.
Fed up and frustrated by sky-high food prices and concerned over widespread hunger in their communities, thousands of Inuit have spent weeks posting pictures and price tags from their local grocery stores to a Facebook site called Feed My Family.
That site is now the nucleus of an unprecedented protest across Nunavut organized for Saturday to draw attention to food prices that would shock southerners.
“This is traditionally not the Inuit way, I understand that,” said Leesee Papatsie, the 44-year-old Iqaluit mother of four who’s organizing the event. “But we’re trying to get Nunavummiut to step forward and say ‘Hey, food is too expensive.'”
Papatsie wants Inuit in every community in Nunavut to stand together outside their local grocery store Saturday afternoon. A similar event is being organized in Ottawa.
Weeks after the federal government dismissed concerns from a United Nations representative about food insecurity in Canada’s North, turnout at the protest could be impressive. More than 10,000 people have joined the Feed My Family site — over a third of Nunavut’s entire population.
“Food insecurity is so prevalent,” said Nunavut’s territorial nutritionist, Jennifer Wakegijig, who tabled a report on the issue this week in the Nunavut legislature.
It found nearly three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes. Half of youths 11 to 15 years old sometimes go to bed hungry. Two-thirds of Inuit parents also told a McGill University survey that they sometimes ran out of food and couldn’t afford more.
“Every Inuit in Nunavut knows someone in their family or in their community that is hungry that day,” said Papatsie.
The roots of the problem are deep and tangled.
Cost is one of them. As Ron Elliott, the MLA for the High Arctic communities of Resolute, Grise Fiord and Arctic Bay said, “We’re at the end of the food chain here.”
He tells of one southern Inuit family that tried to send food north to relatives. Shipping $200 worth of groceries cost $500.
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.
Canada’s national Inuit group, Inuit Tapirisat Kanatami, reports 42 per cent of Inuit say hunting is too expensive.
And those being asked to bear those costs are among Canada’s poorest. ITK says half of Inuit adults earn less than $20,000 a year.
But Inuit don’t always have the skills to make the best use of the resources they’ve got, Wakegijig acknowledges.
“There’s just been a whole shift in the food supply for people that are now living in communities. And that shift in food supply didn’t necessarily bring with it knowledge about or how to prepare southern types of food,” she said.
“Even if that cabbage cost $2, there’s no guarantee the Inuit mother would buy it.”
Poverty and food security are now at the centre of the territorial government’s agenda. A “Food Security Coalition” has been formed with representatives from six different government departments, as well as Inuit organizations.
Nunavut has also established school breakfast programs in all its communities. It offers classes in cooking and prenatal nutrition. It funds repairs to community freezers to store harvested game and sponsors community hunts to make more country food available.
Increasingly, country food is being sold. Some suggest that will create incentives for hunters to bring in more of it. But others point out those who can’t afford hamburger aren’t likely to be able to afford caribou, either.
A wealthier territory could go a long way to making Arctic hunger history. Ed McKenna of the Nunavut Roundtable for Poverty Reduction points out that mineral exploration in Nunavut is likely to create much-needed jobs.
“Economic growth is needed, and we will have those things,” he said. “The problem is how to ensure that people participate in that economic growth.”
Good jobs will help, but not everyone will work in a mine. McKenna said communities have to learn to work together to ensure none among them go hungry.
“Poverty reduction amounts to more than just an issue around income,” he said. “Poverty has lots of different dimensions and we need to take a holistic approach.”
Meanwhile, Papatsie is just tired of paying $500 to $600 a week in groceries for herself, her husband and her one child still at home.
“I just wanted to voice one simple message: food costs are too high in Nunavut.”
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton