The relationship between Inuit and the natural environment is complex and varies across the north—from community to community and across generations. Despite these variations, Inuit have always been much more tightly connected to the land and wildlife than non-indigenous people to the south.
Much of that connection revolves around hunting and harvesting—an issue that evokes passionate opinions among those inclined to debate it.
Opinions are informed to a large extent by the perspectives to which we’ve been exposed. When it comes to hunting and harvesting of wildlife in the north, we frequently are exposed to perspectives about the cultural and economic significance for Inuit, legal rights and obligations, population status, research and conservation, animal rights, and political implications.
Another perspective has been surfacing over the last generation and a half as Inuit have moved off the land and diet has shifted away from hunted and harvested wildlife. It’s the perspective of the healthcare community in the north.
For centuries, all the nutritional needs of Inuit people were provided by the land through hunting and harvesting of “country foods”—mostly marine mammals, birds, fox, hare and fish. Since people began moving off the land and settling in communities, the percentage of the diet represented by country foods has been declining. Subsistence hunting has declined for many reasons including population management regulations and quotas, increased costs of supplies and equipment, increasingly dangerous ice conditions resulting from climate changes, and inter-generational cultural shifts.
For many remote northern communities, healthy choices of store-bought foods are limited and expensive when they are available. The readily available and less expensive alternatives, it should be no surprise, are the processed and packaged “junk foods”.
Regardless of one’s opinion about hunting and harvesting, the health impacts resulting from the decline in consumption of country foods have been well documented and described. They include large increases in rates of heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related ailments.
Jennifer Wakegijig, Territorial Nutritionist for the Government of Nunavut, describes the issue in a short video clip produced by the Vancouver Aquarium as part of an ongoing series. Have a look.
We are sometimes asked why an aquarium is interested in issues like that of Inuit health and country foods. The short answer is that we must be. The nutritional relationship between the people and the wildlife in the north is another example of how inextricably linked people and nature are in the Arctic. Environmental sustainability in the north cannot be achieved without understanding and appreciation of the cultural, social, political and economic context in which environmental issues occur.
We don’t claim to have the answers, but we will continue to seek and pass on various perspectives in our efforts to help ensure a healthy and informed dialogue.