Inuit Food Security: Vulnerability of the traditional food system to climatic extremes

This research was conducted by Sara Statham (BSc, MA) who is a graduate student at McGill University working under the supervision of Dr. James Ford.

This website shares the findings of her research.

Significant and rapid climate change is predicted for Arctic regions, and there is evidence that it is already occurring. These changes have implications for Canadian Inuit, many of whom depend on hunting and fishing for their livelihoods. Varying environmental conditions impact many dimensions of the traditional food system, thus impacting food security.

Winter 2010/2011 brought extreme environmental conditions throughout the Canadian Arctic. The aim of this project is to determine whether these extreme environmental conditions impacted the ability of hunters to obtain country food and whether this caused food insecurity at the community level.


A traditional food system involves all processes associated with hunting, harvesting, preparing, sharing, and consuming foods obtained from local natural resources. When this system is stressed so that food is not available, accessible, or of sufficient quality, food insecurity occurs. Food insecurity has been identified as a significant health problem for Inuit throughout Nunavut. Food insecurity is influenced by climate change, as environmental conditions impact the availability, accessibility, and quality of wildlife that Inuit depend upon for food.

This case study in Iqaluit, Nunavut combines scientific knowledge and Inuit knowledge. Methods involved collection and analysis of instrumental data, interviews with 25 local hunters, and surveys with 100 public housing residents.


Environmental conditions during winter 2010/2011 were extreme

Winter 2010/2011 involved significantly warmer temperatures that contributed to the latest freeze-up on record, which didn’t occur until January 24, 2011 – 59 days later than the long term average. When the sea ice finally formed, hunters noted that it was more dangerous and unstable than previous years. Sea ice break-up occurred earlier than normal, contributing to a shorter sea ice season and longer open water season. Conditions on the land were not as extreme as on the ice, although freeze-thaw cycles caused unfavourable icy conditions.


Poor conditions made it more difficult to harvest wildlife and obtain country food

Hunters noted reduced harvests of both caribou and seal during winter 2010/2011 due to variation in animal distribution and the hunters’ ability to obtain wildlife. Public housing residents said that there was less caribou and seal available to eat. Most people were able to catch and eat Arctic char.


Food insecurity is a problem amongst public housing residents

54% of households did not have enough money to buy store food and could not get country food during winter 2010/2011. This was more prevalent than previous years when 46% of households affirmed this statement.


Reduced consumption of country food contributed to health problems

Public housing residents described physical health problems (i.e. digestive difficulties, food cravings), and mental health problems (i.e. stress from worrying about food, loss of identity), as they lacked both the nutritional and cultural components of country food.


Sharing networks and commercial sources of country food compensated for limitations

To deal with limited country food supplies, public housing residents relied on sharing networks both within Iqaluit and between Nunavut communities. They also relied on commercial sources of country food, including the local retail store Iqaluit Enterprises, the Country Food Market, and the Iqaluit Sell/Swap group on Facebook.


Hunters and community members displayed resilience

People in Iqaluit employed multiple adaptive strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with increased stress to the traditional food system. Hunters dealt with environmental stresses (i.e. altered hunting routes, took more precautions) while residents dealt with food-related stresses (i.e. improved financial awareness, used community food programs).


Use of food-related coping mechanisms and community food programs increased

Public housing residents more often reported substituting food (eating less preferable foods because they are either easier to access or more affordable), reducing food intake (decreasing the size of meal portions or skipping meals altogether), and eating elsewhere (going to a friend’s or family member’s house to eat due to a lack of food in their own home) during winter 2010/2011 compared to previous years. They also more often reported using the Food Bank, Soup Kitchen, and Tukisigiarvik Centre.


Vulnerability is experienced more acutely by some than others

Public housing residents who nutritionally rely on country food instead of store food, who financially rely on income support instead of waged employment, and who have weak sharing networks instead of strong sharing networks experienced more food insecurity.


Broader socioeconomic factors worsened the impact of the climatic extremes

Food security was negatively impacted by socioeconomic determinants including limited access to financial resources, lack of budgeting skills, increased hunting costs, a deteriorating traditional knowledge base, strained sharing networks, as well as poverty and social issues.



Responses that increase resilience (i.e. using more discretion when hunting, improving financial awareness) should be reinforced and responses that are maladaptive (i.e. reducing food intake, selling belongings) should be reduced.


Hunting and harvesting

The Hunters and Trappers Association could host roundtable discussions to provide a platform for hunters to share their experiences, describe their challenges, and offer their recommendations (i.e. increasing their safety).

The Nunavut Harvester Support Program’s Capital Equipment Program could provide cooperative equipment to allow financially insecure hunters to participate in subsistence activities (i.e. improving their ability to go boating during the long open-water season).

The Nunavut Harvester Support Program’s Capital Equipment Program could offer gasoline subsidies to permit hunters to travel increasingly far distances (i.e. increasing their ability to hunt distant caribou near Amadjuak Lake).


Sharing and Distributing

More frequent Country Food Markets could increase access to traditional foods for those who lack hunters in their household or are not engaged in strong sharing networks. This will require increased funding for Project Nunavut. However, public dialogue should occur with regards to their development and potential impact on traditional values of sharing.

Subsidies for country food could be incorporated into the next food program to increase the viability of inter-community sharing. Expanding this subsidy beyond commercially-produced country food would improve the ability of Northerners to obtain traditional foods from one another.


Preparing and consuming

Local buildings, such as the Parish Hall or Soup Kitchen, could offer their kitchens to the community to provide a location for people to prepare food and share cooking skills.

A nutrition program, similar to the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program, could be created to teach community members about health and wellness. This program should target a broad audience rather than requiring participants to meet specific eligibility criteria.

Community food programs, such as the Food Bank and Soup Kitchen, could incorporate country foods into their provisions. The Tukisigiarvik Centre has taken a more “northern” approach to food programs, and this has proven to be successful amongst public housing residents.


However, none of this will be sufficient without addressing broader socioeconomic factors

Revision of public housing and the income support program is required to reduce disincentives to employment. Financial self-sufficiency is especially important as those on income support were more likely to not have enough money to meet household needs, use multiple community food programs, and have an insecure country food status.

The issue of poverty in Iqaluit must be acknowledged and addressed. In February 2012, the Government of Nunavut released "The Makimaniq Plan: A Shared Approach to Poverty Reduction," which promises to tackle poverty across the territory. It sets various goals that the government and its partners hope to achieve. The Makimaniq Plan should be financially, politically, and socially supported.


This research provides a snapshot of the vulnerability of the traditional food system to climatic extremes during winter 2010/2011 in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Vulnerability was not as pronounced as anticipated, although issues of food security amongst public housing residents were still significant. Many of the adaptive strategies used were not unique to winter 2010/2011, although the augmented stress to the traditional food system likely contributed to the increased use of such strategies.

It can be argued that broader socioeconomic conditions were more pressing than environmental conditions in terms of food security determinants amongst those living in public housing. If residents were socially and economically stable, it is likely that they would have been even more resilient to food system vulnerability and related food insecurity. Overall, extreme climatic conditions indeed exacerbated the vulnerability of the traditional food system, but this was primarily due to its coupling with broader socioeconomic conditions.


The Community of Iqaluit
Nunavut Research Institute
Nunavut Arctic College
Daniel Kaludjak + David Nakashuk
Graham McDowell + Peter Adams
Climate Change Adaptation Research Group
Iqaluit Housing Authority
Hunters and Trappers Association

Nasivvik Centre for Inuit Health and Changing Environments
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
Global Environmental and Climate Change Centre
Northern Scientific Training Program

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