The Continued Importance of Hunting for Future Inuit Food Security

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Mike Beauregard
The heads of two harvested bowhead whales at the entrance of a harbor in Repulse Bay, Nunavut.

In Brief

Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic have undergone rapid societal changes in the last half century, including moving into permanent settlements, the introduction of formal education, participation in the wage-economy, mechanization of hunting and travel, and increased consumption of store-bought foods. Despite these changes, country foods—locally harvested fish and wildlife—continue to be important in the lives of many Inuit for food security. However, fewer people are hunting full-time and some households are without an active hunter, limiting their access to country foods. This shift has increased reliance on processed foods purchased at the store to meet their daily food needs. These foods are often expensive, less nutritious, highly processed to endure long shelf lives, and less desirable than country foods. An entry point to strengthen Inuit food security is to support the acquisition of culturally-appropriate country foods through subsistence hunting and fishing. This entails supporting the transmission of environmental knowledge and land skills important for subsistence among generations, providing harvesters with necessary resources, and securing reliable cold storage in communities (e.g. community freezers) to preserve country foods during increasingly warmer summer months.


Key Concepts

  • Canadian Inuit experience higher levels of food insecurity than the average Canadian, with the high cost of store-bought foods being a contributing factor.

  • Changes in the subsistence food system have increased reliance on store-bought foods, however, households with active hunters are more food secure and allow access to culturally-relevant and nutritious foods.

  • To encourage greater involvement in harvesting activities, opportunities must be created for Inuit to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills for participation in subsistence harvesting.

  • Hunters often travel long distances in harsh climates in order to secure food, yet the high cost of equipment, gas, and maintenance prevents many Inuit from hunting. Increased access to hunter support programs is important will allow more Inuit the opportunity to secure their own food.

  • More reliable long-term food storage solutions, such as community freezer programs, are needed so families can store and share harvested foods. This is especially important as many families have limited personal freezer space, and increasing Arctic temperatures result in increased food spoilage.

Inuit, the Indigenous People inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and the Russian Far East, have adapted to living in the harsh Arctic conditions for thousands of years. In Canada, there are more than 50 Inuit communities across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunatsiavut (Labrador), and Nunavik (Quebec), with many located above or near the Arctic Circle (66º30’N), and nearly all of which are in remote locations accessible only by airplanes. Communities across the Arctic range in population size from 110 (Sachs Harbour, NT) to 6,254 (Iqaluit, NU), with up to 97 percent of each community identifying as Inuit.1 While summer temperatures can reach upwards of 35°C, winter temperatures can drop below -60°C when factoring in wind chill effects, with wind speeds ranging from 50 to 80 km/h, and temperatures remaining below freezing for up to eight months of the year.2 In high-latitude Canadian communities, polar nights (24-hour period with no sunrise) last up to four to five months, and 24-hour daylight can last over five months.3 The resulting short growing season combined with extensive permafrost (soil frozen throughout the year) limits agricultural approaches to food production. Historically, Inuit have relied heavily on wild populations of terrestrial and marine species for food, warm clothing, and tools, with the historical movement of Inuit centered on seasonal food availability (e.g., caribou, whales, and fish).4

 

Rosemary Gilliat / Library and Archives Canada
A young girl carries a bag of sugar in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in 1960. The last half century has seen Inuit communities become increasingly reliant upon imported food products.

 

Food security is a growing challenge for many Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic and requires diverse, locally relevant solutions.5 Food security exists when people can acquire safe, nutritionally adequate, and culturally acceptable foods in a manner that maintains human dignity at all times.6,7 However, Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic aged 15 and over experience higher rates of food insecurity than in southern Canada (41 percent compared with eight percent).8,9 Where food security relates to physical and economic access to food, food sovereignty includes the ability to shape one’s own diet, “including production, distribution and consumption of food with respect to their own cultures and their own systems of managing natural resources.”10,11 Food security is a precondition of food sovereignty, however, sovereignty includes the ability to shape one’s own diet in a way consistent with one’s culture, includes local food systems and food distribution, and enhances community independence.12 It is increasingly difficult to find ways to support local food systems contributing to both food security and food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is not always explicitly stated as a goal within Arctic communities, however, ideas relating to food sovereignty are noted in community’s food security goals, with the ability to access traditional foods as a high priority.13

Historically, subsistence hunting and fishing were the primary sources of food production for Inuit in the Arctic. Today subsistence continues to be important in the lives of many Inuit, even though Inuit society has undergone profound changes in the last half century, placing new pressures on the subsistence food system. These changes include, but are not limited to, moving into permanent settlements, increasing populations, attendance in formal education, the rise of the wage economy, and the increasing cost of hunting. Unlike their parents or grandparents, younger Inuit generally spend less time involved in subsistence activities, but comparatively more time in formal education, wage employment, and community socialization (e.g. sports, Internet, and television). Formal schooling and employment limit the amount of time youth and hunters can spend on the land, resulting in less hands-on training of hunting and land skills. As a result, many younger Inuit do not possess the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in subsistence harvesting activities, in addition to the high costs associated with harvesting of country foods (i.e., foods that have been hunted, fished, or gathered locally).14,15

Claire Hornby
Beluga muktuk is processed after harvest. Muktuk (or muktaaq) is the layer of skin with blubber attached, and is an important cultural food across the Arctic.

Research shows that households with active hunters are more food secure.16 It is unrealistic, however, to expect that the ecosystem and subsistence economy can fully meet the food needs of a growing Inuit population. Inuit now live in permanent settlements and hunt more intensively in nearby areas, raising questions about environmental limitations of species important for subsistence. Superimposed on these challenges are changes brought on by a warming Arctic that includes alterations to the local ecosystem influencing access, availability, and abundance of traditionally harvested foods.17 To some degree, most Inuit depend on imported foods, which tend to be nutrient-poor and expensive to purchase.18,19 This shift away from a subsistence-based diet consisting mainly of country foods (primarily fish, caribou, seals, whales, muskox, and birds) to a diet high in store-bought foods (lower nutritional value, no cultural relevance, and high in  preservatives) has been identified as a key issue for food security in terms of the ability to access nutritionally adequate and culturally acceptable foods.20,21

 

Current research on food security in the Arctic suggests that opportunities to support Inuit food security must be driven by communities with involvement from regional and national stakeholders,22 thereby contributing to food sovereignty. For example, the Nunavut Food Security  Coalition, an organization addressing food security in the Nunavut portion of the Canadian Arctic, has identified six key themes for improving food security: country food, store-bought food, local food production, life skills, programs and community initiatives, and policy and legislation.23 As part of this food strategy, the Coalition aims to increase awareness of food prices across communities and empower communities to produce food locally. Programs across the Arctic, such as community greenhouses, have strived to promote local food production.24 In addition, initiatives such as country food markets, whereby hunters can sell local foods through a market to improve food security and share country foods, have been successful in other Arctic countries such as Greenland. While this remains a long-term goal for Canada, with some initiatives in place (Project Nunavut),25 regulatory issues surrounding the commercialization of country foods remain a hurdle to implementing country food markets.26

Jeff W. Higdon
On the left, maqtaaq, or the skin and outer blubber layer, from a narwhal prior to being packaged (at right) for return to the community (Admiralty Inlet, NU, August 2008).

While this multi-faceted food strategy includes a variety of initiatives, here we elect to discuss some general, Inuit-identified starting points to support food sovereignty, specifically focusing on the subsistence hunting and fishing aspect of the Inuit food system: enhancing opportunities for the transmission of knowledge and skills for subsistence among generations, supporting harvesters by providing access to equipment and supplies, and improving food storage options. These solutions focus on ways to improve food sovereignty by allowing culturally relevant options for improving food security within the local food system. They alone do not cover all possible points to support Inuit food security, but rather represent starting points to an increasingly important discussion on food security that must establish Inuit as key decision makers.27 Improvements to food security have occurred through increased availability of foods within numerous programs such as greenhouse initiatives and the Nutrition North subsidy.28,29 Yet, the cultural relevance of food is important to Inuit across the Arctic, and approaches should be focused on the consumption of food with respect to Inuit culture.

 

Current Approaches to Supporting Food Security in the Arctic

 

Nutrition North is the largest national food subsidy available in the Canadian Arctic. It offers air freight subsidies directly to northern retailers in remote communities to help lower the costs of “healthy” foods (i.e. produce, dairy, cereals, meats, etc.).29 However, lack of transparency within the system does not confirm whether all subsidies make it to the consumer.30 Furthermore, discounts only apply to certain items, which may be less culturally appropriate, while the cost of other food items and grocery products remains high (see Box 1). Nutrition North helps alleviate costs for some food items, but taken alone it can best be described as a “band-aid” solution. Rather, a greater regional focus needs to be placed on people and cultures to better understand their food requirements and adjust subsidies accordingly.31

New Approaches to Supporting Food Security in the Arctic

 

While federal and regional governments have a clear responsibility to ensure their citizens have access to appropriate and adequate foods, how these programs are administered is critical to their success. In Canada, a number of specific government initiatives impact nutrition and food security. Most of the initiatives are federal programs that are delivered in the provinces and territories; there is limited evidence of territorial or provincial programs that deal comprehensively with the issue of food security.32 Given the cultural diversity within each territory, it is important that a regional or local approach is used to ensure an effective design that supports community needs. We recognize that addressing food security in the Arctic is complex, and that interventions are likely to be highly localized in order to work within the diversity of governance structures under different land claims. Here, we recommend that federally-derived funding should include bottom-up initiatives rather than the current top-down approach. The 2016 Canadian Federal budget has allocated CAD$8.4 billion over the next five years, “to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous peoples and their communities, and, bring about transformational change.”33 While food security is not mentioned explicitly, numerous programs within the federal budget support education and training and could be adapted to include the proposed solutions. In addition, new approaches are needed that engage community members throughout the decision-making process, program design, implementation, monitoring, and review.34

 

Enhance Opportunities to Transmit Knowledge and Skills across Generations

Traditional qayaqs are making a resurgence in the Inuvialuit community of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, Canada, due to an interest in returning to traditional harvest methods. For Inuit, the qayaq is a symbol of resiliency, ingenuity, and connection to the natural world.

The building of a qayaq requires the expertise of an entire community, from the carpentry to build the frame to the sewing of the skins to make the cover, with these skills passed down from one generation to the next. Advances in technology have allowed hunters access to modern boats and equipment for hunting activities. With this change, traditional knowledge of qayaqs has decreased. As a traditional qayaq maker, I interpret available traditional knowledge to design qayaqs for individually prescribed uses. Through the construction of qayaqs, paddles, and harpoons, I have had to learn to use traditional materials, find sources to incorporate into builds, and have witnessed communities come together in the process.

Historically, traditional knowledge and skills related to subsistence were passed down from one generation to the next through a process of cultural transmission, generally involving hands-on training and practice.35 Residential schools in Canada removed Aboriginal children (including Inuit) from their families, in part to weaken their culture and replace it with the culture of the Euro-Christian Canadian society.36 These schools existed for more than 100 years in Canada, with successive generations of children attending. Given that subsistence involves the transmission of social norms and cultural values,37,38 the destruction of Aboriginal culture associated with the residential school system also negatively impacted subsistence activities. The legacy of the residential school system, together with other societal changes, has resulted in some younger Inuit not learning the knowledge and skills important for safe and successful hunting.35,39 Knowledge sharing within and among Arctic communities provides an important opportunity for spreading knowledge about harvesting and food preparation, especially in cases where new species become available due to changes in migration or abundance. Subsistence skills, such as navigation, hunting, and meat preparation, are important factors in determining one’s ability to participate in hunting and subsequently in their ability to contribute to country food production.40 Hunting plays an important domestic economic role, but also allows for the continuation of traditional practices and supports the re-establishment of ties with the land.41 In addition, promoting country foods at a young age (in daycares and elementary schools) encourages an appreciation for cultural knowledge and subsistence living.21,42 Hunting and food preparation programs need to receive consistent and universal support in Inuit communities to foster inter-generational and inter-community knowledge transmission regarding the harvest and preparation of local foods.

 

Existing on-the-land programs have been developed to support knowledge sharing within communities, to ensure this knowledge is passed down to the younger generation to support subsistence harvesting activities.43 Programs in the Northwest Territories (NT) such as “Take your kid trapping and harvesting,” community hunts, and other harvesting programs teach youth skills and knowledge about trapping, fishing, hunting, outdoor survival, boating skills, gun skills, on-the-land skills, and preparation of food and animal skins.40,44 However, even with available programs, not all children and youth in the area have access to the same level of skills development and training. Furthermore, adequate training in the preparation of country foods is necessary to ensure foods are safe for consumption.45 Therefore, on-the-land programs should also be linked to classroom programs that teach hands-on skills necessary for country food harvesting and preparation. Examples of such programs include nutrition education classes occurring in smaller Nunavut communities (led by the Nunavut Food Security Coalition) and pilot programs in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR), NT that bring elders and hunters into the classroom.

Tristan Pearce
Arctic char, a traditional country food, is hung to dry as an alternative to freezing the fish.

Knowledge exchange between communities has occurred for the beluga harvest in the ISR following changes in beluga migration routes, making beluga available to new communities. This exchange provides necessary insight about how to successfully harvest new species for which traditional knowledge does not exist in an area. In the case of beluga, where migration changes led to an increase in access for certain communities (Paulatuk, NT 1980s; Kugluktuk, Nunavut 2000s; Ulukhaktok, NT 2014), inter-community hunter exchanges and community meetings are important methods for teaching hunting techniques and meat preparation to less experienced hunters. Currently, costs and logistics are generally shared between federal, territorial, and local governments, depending on the program. However, universal programs and funds have not been established to support the transmission of knowledge within and between communities. Changes in animal distribution and populations associated with climate change may increase the need to support inter-community knowledge transmission.

 

Non-traditional avenues such as social media and technology to support the transmission of knowledge already play a role in the Arctic. Electronic platforms such as the Inuit siku (sea ice) Atlas was developed, in part to respond to Inuit Elders’ and hunters’ expressions of interest in sharing their knowledge with youth.46 Many components of the Atlas were incorporated into the school curriculum for Nunavut schools through a partnership with the Government of Nunavut and the Department of Education. Social media is also used to communicate about harvesting activities and observations (e.g. the Facebook group NT Hunting stories of the day), and may play a role in supporting inter-community knowledge transmission.47 Greater accessibility and diversity of programs is necessary in order to re-instill the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in harvesting activities.

 

Support Harvester Access to Equipment and Supplies

Jeff W. Higdon
Selection of equipment needed for successful hunting, clockwise from top left: a harpoon being used during a walrus hunt (Foxe Basin, NU, July 2007), a boat and motors used during a successful narwhal hunt (Admiralty Inlet, NU, August 2008); a scoped rifle in use during a bearded seal hunt (Foxe Basin, NU, July 2009); a seal hook, or niksik in Inuktitut (Foxe Basin, NU, July 2009).

Lack of access to harvesting equipment and/or supplies due to financial constraints is a barrier to hunting for many Inuit.39,48,49 Country foods are expensive to acquire relative to store-bought foods, with gear being a large investment. The high cost of equipment is not only a limitation, but often means that acquiring country foods is not profitable, potentially costing the hunter more money than purchasing equivalent foods at the store.49 This cost discrepancy is made worse by the fact that store-bought foods receive federal subsidies divided among national taxpayers, while country foods costs fall only on the individual hunter, or immediate family. This willingness to pay for country foods is due to the cultural importance of hunting activities and consuming country foods.50,51 Even when hunters have access to equipment, repair costs and high prices of fuel (gas, oil, and naptha) often prevent hunting trips.51 Programs such as the Nunavut Harvester Support Program (Nunavut) and the Community Harvester Assistance Program (ISR, NT) operate at territorial scales and provide some applicants with financial support to purchase both large (snowmobiles, boats, ATVs, motors, etc.) and small equipment (GPS, fish nets, sleeping bags, sewing machines, etc.).52,53 However, even with programs available, not all community members qualify for programs, and navigation through current programs can be difficult, resulting in less participation in harvesting.54

 

Increased funding support to hunter assistance programs is an important factor in reducing the high costs to individual hunters in order to allow participation in subsistence harvesting. Currently, funding resources determine the number of hunters supported, with some being denied funding. In addition, lack of knowledge regarding programs combined with difficulty navigating the system prevents qualified hunters from applying.52 Improving and expanding existing programs by increasing awareness of the program and its application processes, simplifying that process, and increasing funding will help to reduce barriers to program participation.55

 

Improve Food Storage Options

 

Most harvesting activities take place in the spring and summer, with country foods being stored in freezers to last the rest of the year. During the cold winter months, food may be stored outside or on the porch, so individual household freezers may be unplugged to save on high electricity costs. However, in warmer months, limitations on freezer space can lead to food waste or the need to give food away to other families to make room for newly harvested foods. As seasons are becoming warmer and temperatures fluctuate more, the period that freezer storage is required is becoming longer, leading to increased household energy costs and limited ability to stock country foods for the less active winter months. This may be addressed through various food preparation techniques such as drying, smoking, or fermenting meats, but cultural preferences also emphasize access to fresh (including raw) meats throughout the year.

 

“Yeah. Freezer space. Icehouse, walk-in freezer, it’s a big issue. It was so nice to be able to get seals in the summer, freeze them whole in the walk-in freezer, in the icehouse without skinning them and then pick them up around Christmas during your family suppers and stuff, and bring them in and skin it and it’s not freezer burnt, it’s like new because you froze it whole. It’s so nice to be able to do that for the winter months.” – Emily Kudlak, Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories56

Colleen Parker
The Ulukhaktok community freezer, closed since 2004 following funding cuts to the program across the ISR.

As an alternative to household freezers and preservation, community freezers have been built in a number of communities (as a preferred choice over traditional icehouses, which are melting along with the permafrost in which they are encased).57 Community freezer programs exist in select communities across the Arctic, whereby harvesters supply country foods to the freezer for access by the greater community. The viability of community freezers generally depends on a variety of factors including cost of operation, management structure, availability of country food, willing participants (hunters), and compensation for participants (i.e. equipment, money).5,57, The costs of powering a community freezer is a key deterrent for many communities, and prevents programs from being established, even when identified as a priority by community decision makers. These costs may be addressed through renewable energy alternatives (e.g. solar or wind power), thereby reducing operational costs and reliance on diesel generators. Although alternative power sources have high implementation costs, successful wind power programs are running in remote polar locations such as Kotzebue, Alaska and the Jang Bogo Station in the Antarctic.58,59

Though community freezers are increasing across communities, they are not universal and require greater support for awareness and management. Community freezers may also be more culturally appropriate than family freezers (which were widely distributed in the ISR when territorial funding was cut to community freezer programs), due to their role in facilitating food sharing and promoting country food consumption.5 Whereas household freezers require family members and friends to ask for country food when they are in need, community freezers allow users to access country food without embarrassment, serving to strengthen and perpetuate a cultural ethic of sharing.60 Overall, food storage through culturally appropriate mechanisms, such as community freezers, is an essential component in preserving harvested country foods for future use and facilitating food-sharing.

 

Final Thoughts

 

Inuit are highly adaptable and continue to thrive in a challenging environment that is undergoing rapid change. Due to Inuit reliance on subsistence hunting, fishing, and trapping, this food system is sensitive to changing environmental conditions. Taken together with socio-economic and political changes, such as population growth and the rise of the wage economy, the Inuit food system is in a time of flux and many Inuit are described as being food insecure. We argue that subsistence hunting, fishing, and trapping will continue to play a vital role in Inuit food security. If culturally-relevant solutions in the subsistence sector are driven by Inuit, they have the potential to also improve food sovereignty for Arctic Inuit communities. We propose re-evaluating current top-down subsidies in favor of locally-supported, culturally-relevant opportunities to promote the transmission of knowledge and skills important for subsistence among generations, to increase harvesters’ access to hunting equipment and supplies, and improve food storage options in communities.

 

Acknowledgements:

The authors would like to acknowledge ArcticNet for project funding (1.8 Knowledge Co-Production). In addition, we thank additional funding source and project partners: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, W. Garfield Weston Foundation, Fisheries Joint Management Committee, Arctic Science Partnership, Northern Scientific Training Program, Environmental Studies Research Funds, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada, Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (OceanCanada Partnership). Thank you to our research partners from the communities of Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, Paulatuk, and Ulukhaktok (specifically Emily Kudlak, Adam Kudlak, Phylicia Kagyut, Susie Malgokak, Harold Wright, and Winnie Akhiatak), who are the source of many of the insights shared in this paper. Finally, we would like to thank Kate Snow, John Iacozza, and reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

 

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