06/24/2012 11:12 EDT | Updated 08/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Northern Food Prices: Inuit Officials Gather In Nunavut To Address Hunger In Canada's Arctic


IQALUIT, Nunavut — After another week that saw hundreds of Inuit gather outside their grocery stores to protest the high cost of food, top Nunavut officials are meeting to start looking for long-term answers to the persistent problem of hunger in the Arctic.

'People are getting more and more frustrated,'' acknowledged Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak, days before the first meeting of the territory's Food Security Coalition.

"It has come to the point where people are demonstrating. It's good to see people taking action.''

One of them was Eric Joamie, who joined about 200 others in Pangnirtung on western Baffin Island Thursday to complain about food bills that total, in his case, up to $1,000 a week.

"We know a lot of our own community children are hungry,'' he said.

Similar demonstrations took place in several communities across Nunavut, as well as in Ottawa. They were the latest in a series of such demonstrations that began last spring in Coral Harbour, Nunavut.

The Facebook site Feeding My Family, which has been used to organized the protests, now has almost 22,000 members — two-thirds the size of Nunavut's entire population.

Research has found nearly three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in homes without a sure supply of food. Half of youths between 11 and 15 sometimes go to bed hungry. Two-thirds of Inuit parents also told a survey that they sometimes ran out of food and couldn't afford more.

A UN representative recently embarrassed the Canadian government by concluding that many in Nunavut are "too poor to eat decently.''

The territorial government has budgeted $6 million for community freezers, school breakfast programs, community hunts and higher social assistance rates.

But Aariak knows more needs to be done. That's why on Tuesday representatives from six government departments and several Inuit organizations are to meet for the first time to try to come up with permanent solutions.

There will be no single answer, she said in an interview.

"No one program will make the problem go away.''

Towns and hamlets have to learn to increase the supply of country food — caribou, whale, char and other game — by making best use of refurbished community freezers and holding community hunts, Aariak suggested.

Inuit have no tradition of cooking store-bought foods and need better information on how to get the most out of their grocery dollars.

Aariak added the federal government needs to realize that building infrastructure such as ports would lower shipping costs for those bringing in food from the south.

As well, Ottawa's Nutrition North program, which subsidizes retailers to bring in fresh foods at lower cost, needs to be monitored to ensure savings are being passed on and that the list of subsidized groceries is wide enough, she said. Disposable diapers, for example, are not subsidized despite the fact Nunavut has Canada's highest fertility rate.

"It's very important for the federal government to listen to the people,'' said Aariak. "I think there's room to do more.''

Ultimately, said Aariak, economic development and jobs are the best providers of food security. But you also have to talk education, health and housing.

"Everything is connected.''

Governments won't be the only source of solutions, Aariak hopes. She said the recent protests could be a sign Nunavummiut are ready to start taking matters into their own hands.

"I don't think the public is waiting for their government or their organizations to address this situation,'' she said.

"There is this power at the community level. I applaud that initiative. I'm a strong believer in community self-reliance.''

Still, Inuit like Joamie point out that while long-term solutions are the best, people are hungry now.

"People that are hungry have to be helped immediately,'' said Joamie, who will represent Feeding My Family at the meeting.

He'd like to see better co-ordination of food banks in Nunavut.

"We have to get that going as soon as possible.''

Aariak agreed helping those in distress is important. But long-term solutions are what the Food Security Coalition seeks, and that will eventually have to include different levels of government, retailers, shippers, other businesses, Inuit organizations and individual Inuit.

"We need the participation of additional partners,'' she said. "We want to involve as many people as possible.

"This is something that will be addressed over many years.''

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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