Constrained by the limits of the land, and the bounty from ships and shops

Feeding yourself in the Arctic is expensive, so the Inuit hunt ‘country food’

Charlie Bird: Seal hunting in the Arctic


In a way Grise Fiord, the village in the Canadian Arctic where I am living for a month, is like a small rural community in Ireland. You can walk the length of it in five minutes.

On my second morning here I visit the co-op, one of the two shops in town. In the space of a few minutes I have met almost all the community: the nurse, the teacher, the wildlife officer, the two Royal Canadian Mounted Police – who are all outsiders – and most of the Inuit population.

Everyone is full of chat, and exchanges gossip and news. They don’t speak about the weather or the temperature. The period of 24-hour darkness in Grise Fiord ended a couple of weeks ago, and people are starting to venture out on to the land, which is really frozen sea, stretching as far as the eye can see, but it is still bitterly cold. I ask about the temperature – it was minus 42 when I arrived – but get a shrug of the shoulders.

In each of the communities I have visited on this trip – Iqaluit, Resolute and Grise Fiord – the common complaint I have heard is about the price of shop food. After the plane arrives, on Thursdays or Saturdays, the store has more fresh supplies, and there’s a rush for the fruit and vegetables, but the price of transporting them here means they can cost three or four times as much in the Inuit region of Nunavut as they do “down south” in Ottawa or Toronto.

Almost all the goods in the stores – hunting ammunition, clothes, dry foods and other nonperishables – come in by ship, at the height of summer, in the annual sealift. At the same time a tanker arrives with oil and aviation fuel to keep the hamlet’s 132 inhabitants alive for 12 months.

Food security
Food security is a major issue for the Inuit. Last year Lessee Papatsie, the Iqaluit-based founder of a Facebook group called Feeding My Family, spoke in Dublin at a conference organised by the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice. She described the social, cultural, environmental and economic challenges facing the Inuit over the past 60 years: “The transition from a seminomadic subsistence culture to living in communities with mixed subsistence and wage-earning economies has tested both their resilience and adaptability.”

Papatsie says that rapid climate change is threatening the ability of Inuit to hunt reindeer, musk oxen, polar bears, seals, and beluga and narwhal whales. “The international pressure for conservation in the Arctic is often at odds with traditional hunting livelihoods,” she says, and the “pressure to shift to a more industrialised society . . . means fewer active hunters are harvesting traditional food.”

Dr Geraldine Osborne is a former chief medical officer of Nunavut. She has lived in this part of the world for many years(with her artist husband, Danny, who sculpted the Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square in Dublin). The Inuit are a remarkable people, she says, and their survival in one of the most inhospitable places on earth astounds her. Has climate change affected Inuit hunters? “Absolutely,” she says. “Inuit hunters will say climate change has affected their hunting season and shortened it.”

Jopee Kiguktak, a Grise Fiord elder, has lived here since the early 1960s, when his family resettled from another part of Nunavut. Like most of the local men, he goes out hunting for what they call country food.

Limits on the numbers of polar bears that can be hunted in each community are strictly adhered to. Besides the quota for the Inuit population, they are also allowed a small number of “sports hunters”, many of them from the US. The Inuit who take them out on the land are called outfitters. A sports trip lasts seven to 10 days. It is an expensive pastime, and the outfitters can earn good money. But some of this business dropped off after Washington imposed a ban on polar-bear skins being brought back into the US.

Mary Byrne, a nurse from Drumcondra in Dublin, has worked in the Canadian High Arctic for almost a quarter of a century. She is critical of the attitude of some people from “down south” towards the Inuits’ right to hunt from the land.

Sports-hunter tourism has enabled Inuit hunters to earn money that is vital for the welfare of their families and the local economy, Byrne says. They “plough it back into the community, into the stores, in everything they buy”.

Guns are certainly part of life. Before leaving Iqaluit for Grise Fiord, Danny Osborne offered me one of his old hunting rifles. He said I’d need one out on the land, adding, in a matter-of-fact way, that you never know when you’re going to come across a polar bear in Grise Fiord – and “you have to be able to frighten them off”.

I ask Raymond Mercredi, in whose house I am staying, about this. Without blinking he says that just 10 days earlier, and not more than 100 yards from his house, he shot a polar bear that had wandered into town.

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