Food insecurity is at crisis levels in many northern communities – a fact that is being exacerbated by the adverse effects of climate change.
In Canada’s most remote and northern regions, where food insecurity is disproportionately higher than it is elsewhere in the country, residents have long contended with a lack of employment opportunities, limited income options aside from social assistance, and low income levels.
According to the most current results from the Canadian Community Health Survey, from 2017 to 2018, food-insecurity rates in the territories are significantly higher than the national average, ranging from 16.9 per cent in the Yukon to 21.7 per cent in the Northwest Territories to 57 per cent in Nunavut, compared to 12.7 per cent for the country as a whole during the same period.
Food banks from northern areas that participated in the HungerCount 2022, which is Food Banks Canada’s signature cross-sectional survey documenting food bank use in Canada, mentioned that the rapid inflation in the price of gas is contributing to sky-high food costs at local grocery stores, where the cost of store-bought market foods was already far higher than in major cities.
Without greater focus and attention by governments when it comes to addressing the high levels of food insecurity in Canada’s North, this already dire situation is expected to worsen due to the negative impacts of climate change, which include limiting Indigenous peoples’ access to traditional country foods due to changes in the migratory patterns and locations of the animals they traditionally hunt, fish and trap; and reducing the availability of winter roads that can be used to deliver store-bought market foods to communities in need.
For many northern communities, winter roads are the primary form of land-based access and are crucial for the transportation of food and other essential supplies, as transporting them by air would be extremely expensive. However, this link to food and other resources is in danger with a warming climate.
RELIEVING HUNGER ALONG THE ICE ROADS
Amid growing calls for food bank services in remote and northern communities, Food Banks Canada’s Northern Program Officer, Jason Stevens, set out in February 2022 along with Harvest Manitoba and the Regional Food Distribution Association in Thunder Bay on a mission to improve northern food security.
The group drove more than 3,000 kilometres along the Wapusk Trail – a seasonal ice road that is only accessible to vehicles for up to six weeks of the year – to deliver 4,000 pounds of food to the two remote First Nations of Shamattawa, in northern Manitoba, and Fort Severn, which is the most northern community in Ontario.
WATCH: Winter Road
After returning from the trip, Stevens, who is from the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation in the Treaty 4 Territory, confirmed that access to healthy, nutritious foods in northern communities is becoming more and more limited as each season changes with the impacts of climate change.
“Many of our communities in the North have limited or no road access, with some communities having developed ice road systems where they only have a short timeframe to transport the goods and other items that are so large that the cost of air freight would be worth more than the goods themselves,” Stevens said. “At this time, our communities are against the clock to have nutritious, quality food delivered in large quantities and to have some variety of healthy foods delivered with the cost of these items rising on a daily basis.”
RACING AGAINST THE CLOCK: NORTHERN COMMUNITIES AT RISK OF REDUCED FOOD ACCESS DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE
To demonstrate the potential risk faced by northern communities due to reduced winter road availability, Food Banks Canada commissioned a new map based on a methodology recommended to the National Research Council of Canada that uses a risk score to categorize winter roads in terms of their accessibility.
While many regions throughout the North already face recurring transportation challenges due to variable climate conditions, this new map shows there are some communities that are at a particularly high risk of reduced food access within the next 30 years due to the potential impacts of global warming.
The remote First Nations of Shamattawa and Fort Severn that were visited by Stevens during winter 2022, for example, were both given a risk score of “medium” on the map. On the ground, Stevens said these areas are rapidly moving toward higher risk scores as climate change continues to limit ice road access into remote and hard-to-reach communities.
“For some areas, the window to move food, goods and supplies via the ice roads has already moved from six weeks down to a three-week window,” Stevens said. “When we travelled, the ice roads into Shamattawa and Fort Severn were only accessible during a five-week window; we were there in the fourth week of the schedule.”
Based on factors such as the number of freezing days, the length of winter roads and water crossings, the risk scores are even higher in other communities, such as Whati, Gamèti and Wekweèti in the Northwest Territories, where the food access risk is rated as “medium-high” due to the lack of year-round road availability.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS IN NORTHERN COMMUNITIES
During a December 2022 visit to Inuvik, N.W.T. to build relationships in the community, Stevens was able to learn more about the significant food security challenges being faced by northern residents over a bowl of “Inuvik soup.”
Shared by local food bank champion, Zoila Castillo, Stevens said the soup only has broth in it, “with the meaning being that it’s too expensive to add any type of meat or fish product.”
“This is what they call the ‘Inuvik special,’ and it was an honour to be a part of Zoila’s family for that day and to experience what they face in terms of daily food security challenges,” Stevens said.
Stevens also visited the northern community of Whitehorse, Yukon in November 2022, and the communities of Inuvialuit, N.W.T and Kinngait, Nunavut in December 2022, where residents shared that they find themselves in constant struggles with limited grocery store services, as well as low school attendance due to hunger and food insecurity.
“Somebody hear us,” Stevens said. “That’s the message they wanted me to bring back.”