This summer, two Vancouver Aquarium staffers are visiting communities in Canada’s Arctic. Eric Solomon, director of the Aquarium’s Arctic Programs, and Neil Fisher, Aquarium photographer and videographer, will share their perspectives on people, places and experiences as they learn more about changes taking place in this region. This seventh installment is written by Eric Solomon. 

There are, for the most part, two ways to get goods into remote communities like Pangnirtung, Nunavut: by plane or by sea. Every summer, cargo ships (called the sealift) make the rounds to Canadian Arctic communities, visiting one to three times, weather and ice conditions permitting. They bring dry goods – from coffee and rice to roofing materials and snow machine parts. The window for the sealift deliveries is short and orders need to be placed well ahead.

Perishables typically arrive by plane. What few fresh fruits and vegetables these communities receive are flown in along with people, mail and other cargo. Due to the nature of the landing strips and a lack of regional air traffic controls, planes can only get in or out when the weather allows for clear views of runways and surrounding hills.

This year, Southern Baffin Island, of which Iqaluit, Pangnirtung and Qikiktarjuak are part, has been surrounded by unusually dense quantities of ice. As a result, the sealift was delayed. The same ice that delayed the sealift also caused fog to form and stick around, making air travel unpredictable at best.

We had an opportunity to see what that meant for Pangnirtung this last week. Having last seen the sealift some 10 months ago, Pangnirtung was running out of everything from cereals, canned goods and pop, to clothes and hardware supplies. These will be replenished by the sealift that will be due to arrive, well, nobody seems terribly sure when.

Empty shelves in Pangnirtung’s Northern store await the arrival of the sealift.

Recent fog had also kept planes from coming in. The Northern store’s shelves had no juice, dairy, bread, vegetables, or other perishables. The only thing that was still available in any quantity was junk food – and even that was often past its expiry date. I didn’t even know Mike ‘n’ Ikes had an expiry date, but the ones in town passed that date a full three years ago. The peanut butter had expired last year, and many frozen goods expired about six months ago. This should not reflect badly on the hamlet of Pangnirtung. Rather, it is an indicator of the logistical realities that make life in Canada’s northern-most communities nutritionally, socially and economically challenging.

It’s ironic to me that for the most part, Inuit had food to eat, clothes to stay warm and shelter when needed until they were settled in communities. Now, housing is in a crisis state, nutritional foods are scarce, expensive and rarely fresh, and the dump is your best option for finding spare parts for your snow machine. It’s easy to see why so many Inuit still rely heavily on “country foods,” the seasonally available wildlife that make up the original free-range, organic, “100 mile diet” in the North. In addition to the social and cultural significance of harvesting from the land and sea, the relationship Inuit have with wildlife is also one of nutritional importance.

Pangnirtung Mayor Sakiasie Sowdlooapik told me that roughly 75 per cent of foods eaten in Pangnirtung are country foods – seals, beluga, narwhal, caribou, fish, Arctic hare, Arctic blueberries and blackberries. These foods provide all the vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats required for a healthy life – including those normally supplied by fruits and vegetables down south.

Locally caught Arctic char dries in the open air.

Communities like Pangnirtung are an important reminder that the natural environment occurs within cultural, economic, political, social and nutritional contexts that cannot be pulled apart and simplified. As we seek to address the significant environmental issues facing the North, we look for concrete actions that may be taken as part of the solution. But any discussion of potential solutions such as harvesting limits, product bans and other wildlife conservation strategies must also be a discussion of food and economic security as well as cultural sustainability. Whatever the solutions may be, we’ll come much closer to finding them when we embrace these complexities.

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