POLITICS

What does hunger look like in Nunavut? One man's struggle to feed his kids

12/17/2014 05:35 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST
IQALUIT, Nunavut - Israel Mablick's youngest son clings to his neck as another one of his children and his nephew bounce around on a thin mattress stuffed into a cramped space that doubles as a bedroom and a living room.

This is where Mablick, his wife Donna and their five kids sleep. Mablick and his wife share a mattress with their one-and-a-half-year-old son, Israel Jr. The couple's four other children — Kyle, 11; Karol, 9; Kody, 7; and Kimberley, 5 — double up the other two mattresses that take up the rest of the floor space.

His mother, younger sister and six-year-old nephew share the other room of their Iqaluit apartment.

Mablick is tired. Hunger pangs kept the 36-year-old up most of the night. He says he finally fell asleep around 4 a.m. and woke four hours later.

This is what food insecurity looks like in Nunavut.

A recent report from auditor general Michael Ferguson, footage of Rankin Inlet residents foraging in the town dump and the Conservative government's Nunavut MP, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, getting caught reading a newspaper in the Commons instead of fielding questions about the food problem — for which she eventually apologized — drew fresh attention to an old problem.

But for Mablick, not knowing where his family's next meal will come from is a problem he has struggled with for months — and by no means is his situation unique.

The last Inuit Health Survey found seven out of every 10 Inuit households in Nunavut are food insecure. That means they lack access to nutritious, affordable foods — despite government subsidies and programs to confront hunger.

"The issue is serious," said Harriet Kuhnlein, a nutritionist and the founding director of McGill University's Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment.

"What has been appalling is the seriousness of the issue and what people face. We don't need more research to know that the situation is serious and that people's health is suffering."

Food insecurity puts people at risk of chronic disease, has consequences on their mental health and lowers their capacity to learn, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

It's a spiral that has gripped the Mablick household.

Mablick says he hasn't eaten solid food in a week. What little food he has he gives to his children. He subsists mainly on tea that loses its flavour and strength each time he reuses a tea bag, which he does until they're completely spent.

"The outcome is not fun. You start having the runs," he said.

"Too much liquid in your body and you having diarrhoea and that's not fun. But gotta make sacrifices to feed my family, you know?"

His refrigerator is mostly bare. There's a half-empty bag of milk, some Cheez Whiz and a tub of margarine. Inside a small pot are scraps of seal meat given to him by a relative who recently caught one of the animals.

Mablick says he has been out of work since he quit his job at Parks Canada in October over a dispute with a supervisor that he did not want to elaborate on.

His social-assistance cheques are only now starting to come in, but they won't begin to cover the price of groceries for his entire family. Hunting is out of the question, partly because he has never been very good at it, and partly because he has no transportaion.

He has been forced to sell most of his possessions to put food on the table and says the most difficult item to part with was his snowmobile.

"Pretty much everything that we can sell. Jewellery or carvings, whatever," said Mablick, who is wearing a white T-shirt with a ragged collar and a gaping hole under the right armpit.

"I mean, I'll go to my shack, which is outside, I'll carve something and sell something, but it's been awhile since I carved. I started working on a cribbage board but it's been so cold that my toes are freezing so I can't really carve anything right now."

He also turns to friends and family for food but knows they face their own struggles.

"Sometimes, they'll say yes, they can spare some food or give some food," he said, "but most of the time they have a huge family as well, so it's pretty hard to get food from other family members or friends unless they have enough."

The hardest part for Mablick is telling his kids they can't have any more food.

"Every day, they ask for more, like snacks or meals, if they can get their meals early or can have snacks," he said.

"It's hard. It breaks my heart, you know? I got to say 'No,' because we got nothing."

Follow @steve_rennie on Twitter