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Tackling The Culture Clash Over Country Food in Nunavut

Buying and selling country food could help support the territory’s hunters and strengthen its very poor food security, but the practice conflicts with the Inuit tradition of sharing.

Written by Alexander Kim Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Joe Hess is the manager of Nunavut Country Food in Iqaluit. Hess sells a variety of country food, including dried Arctic char, or pitsi, which he says is very popular. Alexander Kim

IQALUIT, Canada – On a chilly November morning in 2010, Will Hyndman and a few of his friends began to set up white tents in the parking lot of the Nunavut city’s high school.

Hyndman, the founder of the Iqaluit-based social enterprise Project Nunavut, was launching a country food market. It was like a farmers’ market, but selling country food – Arctic char, seal, caribou and other wild game – instead of fruits and vegetables.

Right up until the opening day, Hyndman had been worried about how local people would react to the market. According to Inuit tradition, country food is meant to be shared – not sold.

But before he and his friends had finished raising the first tent, a line of people had formed. Inuit in thick parkas with fur-lined hoods, and non-Inuit people, stood in line and waited, excited.

“Everything sold out within 30 seconds and then it was over,” Hyndman recalls. “I didn’t know if anyone was going to come and be interested… and it was huge.”

Iqaluit fishers sometimes sell fresh Arctic char in the local supermarket parking lot. (Alexander Kim)

Iqaluit fishers sometimes sell fresh Arctic char in the local supermarket parking lot. (Alexander Kim)

The rate of household food insecurity in Nunavut is eight times the Canadian average. The territory wrestles with sky-high prices at grocery stores, while hunters need cash to get out on the land.

Some experts have suggested that commercializing country food could improve access to healthy produce and reduce food insecurity across the northern Canadian territory. The problem is that many local people consider exchanging cash for country food instead of sharing it is against Inuit culture.

“It makes me sad,” says Marion Lewis, an Iqaluit resident and single mother. “It disrespects our grandparents [and] our forefathers before that.”

Pakak Picco and Dickey Jonas butcher a seal at a traditional seal knowledge workshop in Iqaluit. (Alexander Kim)

Pakak Picco and Dickey Jonas butcher a seal at a traditional seal knowledge workshop in Iqaluit. (Alexander Kim)

Nevertheless, some Nunavummiut have started buying and selling country food at local shops, pop-up community markets and, most recently, on Facebook.

Hunters in Lewis’ family used to share their harvest. Lately, they have been selling what they catch on Facebook instead. If Lewis wants to feed country food to her children, she has to go to Facebook, too. She doesn’t like having to pay for it, but she is willing to do so to provide her children with healthy food.

But there may be a way to support hunters and improve access to country food without provoking conflict with the traditional culture of sharing. If the government paid hunters, they could afford to keep hunting – and sharing their food.

“If I break my arm, I don’t pay the doctor, but the doctor gets paid. If I need seal to feed my family, maybe I don’t pay the hunter, but he has to get paid,” Hyndman explains.

He is now working as a consultant with the Government of Nunavut on its country food distribution program, which helps fund projects to improve country food access. Hunters can be paid, people can get their country food and sharing can still happen.

A volunteer hands out pieces of narwhal blubber, or muktuk, at a community feast on Nunavut Day in Iqaluit. (Alexander Kim)

A volunteer hands out pieces of narwhal blubber, or muktuk, at a community feast on Nunavut Day in Iqaluit. (Alexander Kim)

Feeding Nunavut, a non-profit organization, is piloting a similar hunter support program.

Hyndman hopes that a system that mixes commercialization with the tradition of sharing can support food security while minimizing any growing pains.

“It’s definitely a ‘Canadian’ solution,” he says. “It’s not ideologically pure. It’s sort of messy, but it kind of works and strikes a harmony.”

Listen to the full story on country food in Nunavut.

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