Food insecurity in Arctic Canada needs northern solutions, hackathon hears

Participants discuss country food as a facilitator takes notes at the recent hackathon in Nain, a community in the Atlantic Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Courtesy The Gordon Foundation)
Tackling food insecurity in Canada’s Arctic is a complex issue, but one thing is clear, solutions need to come from the communities affected, not from southern capitals, heard a recent ‘hackathon’ in the Inuit self-governing region of Nunatsiavut.

“Sometimes things just work differently in the North,” Kristeen McTavish, the Nunatsiavut Government’s food security coordinator, told Eye on the Arctic in a phone interview. “We have to not only listen, but really take into account what northerners are saying and trust they know what is needed to make their regions healthy.”

Feature Interview
For more on Nunatsiavut, food insecurity, and why southern regulations don’t work in the North, listen to Eye on the Arctic‘s conversation with Kristeen McTavish:

Pan-Arctic approach

Approximately two dozen people participated in the October 25-26 event, held in Nain, a community in the Inuit self-governing region of the province of  Newfoundland and Labrador,  in Atlantic Canada.

The event was initiated by The Gordon Foundation, a charitable foundation that specialises in northern issues and policy.

None of the participants could be reached by Eye on the Arctic before deadline, but the list of those involved included everyone from subsistence hunters and  nutritionists  to policy makers, and came from all of Canada’s northern territories; Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut; along with the Inuit self-governing regions of Nunatsiavut and Nunavik, in northern Quebec.

The ‘hackathoners’ were divided into groups of five or six along with a facilitator. Together they took on questions looking at all aspects of food security.

Nunatsiavut Elder Adam Lidd speaks to participant Leslie Carson at the Northern Policy Hackathon in Nain. (Courtesy The Gordon Foundation)

Though a range of issues were discussed, the need for northern specific policies around food, came up again and again, especially when it came to country food, the term used by many of Canada’s Indigenous peoples for the sea and land mammals that make up their traditional foods, organizers said.

For example, a regulation that hunted food cannot be served in hospitals or daycares may protect people from contaminated food in southern Canada, but in the North, it prevents patients and children from accessing their most nutritious and culturally important food sources at the times they need it most.

“These policies suit southern Canada very well, but they make no sense in northern Canada ” said Sherry Campbell, president and CEO of the Gordon Foundation, in a phone interview from Toronto.

“There’s a real feeling that policies on a number of issues are set by southerners who probably don’t have the full understanding of the context of the North.

“Northern skills, and knowledge that’s traditional, really needs to be recognized in these policies – or northerners need to be exempt in cases where it makes no sense in their communities. It could really be as simple as that.”

Prevalence of household food insecurity in Nunatsiavut's five communities

-79.4 per cent in Nain
-83.1 per cent in Hopedale
-35.1 per cent in Makkovik
-39.6 per cent in Postville
-21.6 per cent in Rigolet

Source: Nunatsiavut Household Food Security Survey, May 23, 2017

‘An issue that needs urgent attention’

The findings from the hackathon will be written up and circulated to policy advisors in the coming months.

But Kristeen McTavish says she hopes issues of food security in northern Canada become part of a wider national debate.

“I’m continually shocked and surprised when I enter into a discussion and I hear from people ‘oh, I had no idea there was food insecurity in Canada,” said McTavish.  “We need to educate the public and make people realize this is an issue.”

” We also need to address the complexity and really talk about this in the context of colonialism, and ongoing colonialism really… We need to elevate that conversation.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: American science foundation awards $500,000 to food security research in Indigenous communities, Eye on the Arctic

Denmark/Greenland: Researchers must be honest with Arctic peoples about food contaminants says doctor, Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  Sami group occupies island in northern Finland to protest fishing rules, Yle News

Norway:  The food crisis in the Far North, Barrents Observer

Russia:  More than 800 000 reindeer to be vaccinated against anthrax in Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Demand ups Sweden’s reindeer meat prices, Radio Sweden

United States:  Food insecurity in Alaska, Alaska Dispatch News

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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