The shifting climate is affecting what people eat in Canada’s North. Teaching Inuvialuit and Gwich’in youth how to prepare and share food from the land is a first step in building food security and resilience.
“With climate change, everything becomes less predictable. Teaching young people how to preserve country foods and to share when there’s abundance means greater flexibility and adaptability.”
– Sonia Wesche
Stretching from the Alaska border to the western edge of the Arctic Islands, the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) is a land of rocky mountains and rolling tundra. About 6,000 people, mostly Inuvialuit and Gwich’in, live there in six remote communities, of which Inuvik, N.W.T., is the largest.
The people of the region have always harvested and eaten wild foods like arctic hare, caribou, fish, whale and berries – often referred to as “country foods.” Over time, however, the population has been getting a larger proportion of its food from stores. According to a 2012 survey, almost a third of Inuvialuit households suffer from inadequate quality or quantity of food due to multiple barriers, such as affordability and changing environmental conditions.
Sonia Wesche, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Ottawa, researches Indigenous environmental health and the impact of climate change on food security in the North. She uses a participatory research model to encourage communities to think and act on the issues that affect them.
In 2014, she helped facilitate a participatory workshop to talk about food security in the face of climate change. The event brought together ISR hunters, trappers, community organizations, and health, education and wildlife management workers.
“They discussed priorities for research and action in the context of change, where things like animal migration patterns and ice conditions are becoming harder to predict,” says Wesche. “Community members talked about youth eating less country food than elders. All agreed that young people need to learn how to harvest, process and preserve country food in this time of change.”
As a result, Wesche and Tiff-Annie Kenny, a PhD student in biology, initiated a project with East Three School in Inuvik to teach elementary and high school students how to prepare, eat and share country food.
“Sharing is so intrinsic to Inuit country food traditions,” says Wesche. “They go out together to hunt and fish, and consult with each other about what the weather will be like or where they think the caribou will be. Harvested food is then distributed throughout the community. There is so much social interaction, sharing knowledge and helping each other. That just doesn’t happen with store-bought food.”
The schools were already taking students onto the land to hunt, fish and pick berries, but food wasn’t coming back into the classroom. Kenny, who travelled to Inuvik twice in 2015 to launch the project, began with the students’ snack program.
“We brought Elders into home economics classes to show how to preserve country foods,” says Kenny. “Students smoked fish and jerked reindeer and served it during snack break.”
Elders also taught students how to use berries in muffins and to make medicinal juice, and shared them with the younger children. The students also prepared and shared soups and stews with Elders at the local long-term care centre.
“With climate change, everything becomes less predictable,” says Wesche. “Teaching young people how to preserve country foods and to share when there’s abundance means greater flexibility and adaptability. Our hope is that activities like these translate into increased resilience in the face of climate change and improved food security in the future.”
by Leah Geller