A discussion during an Indigenous Knowledge Exchange (IKE) session nearly ended in tears last week when one audience member expressed his anger over a hunting ban on his native Bathurst caribou herd.
“All of a sudden, elders are being told to eat pork and bacon. It makes me emotional because it pisses me off,” he said. “This is an insult. I can’t hunt caribou anymore, and that’s a direct link to my ancestors.”
Safe access to affordable, quality foods was the topic of discussion on Thursday afternoon at the International Polar Year (IPY) conference as part of the IKE side conference, which held separate sessions throughout the week focusing on indigenous issues.
Held as a roundtable discussion, participants debated the many issues preventing communities in the North from accessing foods that have shaped the fabric of Northern culture.
A major topic was hunting bans, which are becoming more common in Northern regions where traditional foods are becoming scarce, either through the effects of climate change, or by the contamination of traditionally collected plants by pesticides and heavy metals.
“I don’t think you can separate food security from health. If you don’t have enough food, or good food, your health suffers,” said Stephanie Meakin, an IKE moderator, who noted that many families now have two working adults, leaving little time to harvest wild foods.
A caribou might bring in an equivalent of $800 in store-bought food, and can feed a family for several months. Testimonies indicated that increasing reliance on convenience foods can put a severe strain on the finances and health of Northern families. Participants from Nunavut said shoppers might pay up to $20 for a jar of peanut butter.
In response to this strain on food security, community-led food programs have been emerging in the North.
“There are community-led food assessments in Hope-dale, community freezers in Tuktoyaktuk where hunter and trapper organizations can leave meat to share with their communities and greenhouse initiatives in Inuvik,” said Erin Strachan of the Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association. Many of these, Strachan added, are initiated and managed by women in an effort to preserve their culture.
This was the first year that an International Polar Year conference featured sessions on exchanging indigenous knowledge, which provided Northern research and community perspectives on regional health and environmental issues, often revealing gaps in policy and science.
Shannon O’Hara, a research advisor with the Inuvaluit Regional Corp., attended the IKEs almost exclusively during her time at the IPY conference.
“This is the place where all of the indigenous people would be and where we can get feedback off each other. I will definitely be bringing some of the things I learned here back to my work in the Northwest Territories. I go berry picking every summer and fall, so now it’s making me think that we need more studies on traditional plants after learning about how they can be contaminated,” she said.