High Food Prices, Child Poverty and Discrimination Over Sustainability

“What kind of country thinks it’s ok not only that children don’t have access to clean drinking water, but children don’t have access to food on their tables?” exclaims Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus.

According to a new study by Food Secure Canada, people across the Territories living in remote communities such as the James Bay Coast have to spend over half of their income on food in order to meet basic nutritional requirements. For example, Mushkegowuk territory is serviced by only one grocery store. Individuals are in debt to these stores for their basic food necessities and the only things items deemed affordable are processed foods and pop.

But why has this continued to happen? Since time immemorial, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples were self-sufficient, through subsistence-based activities, in the harsh Arctic climate without causing degradation to their environment. Modern Canadian colonization and modernization has made their food supply and subsistence activities vulnerable. One of our greatest mistakes in development is use a singular model that is limited to only a southern climate in Canada.
Southern Developers, educators and policy makers went into the Territories and enforced a southern methodology of living which is not in any way sustainable to this part of Canadian climate. In this process, Canada had banned and shamed northern sustainable living and enforced them to adopt a sedentary lifestyle dependent on Southern shipments.

John Ralston-Saul, Canada’s leading public intellectual and spouse of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson explains in his book The Comeback that from a historic trend, “our governments will not engage in aboriginal matters. Not really. Not fully. Not with enthusiasm for the possibility of reconciliation, let alone restitution.”

“And so as it follows that our governments and encompassing citizens, one after the other, have not been able to bring themselves to break away from the European urban – rural myth of what constitutes a nation state or a country in order to treat the ‘commodities belt’- the northern two-thirds of Canada – as a real part of the country. To not treat it as just a source of commodities, colonial territories that will make those of us in the south rich”.

There has not been a real effort to include those areas as an integral part of Canada, as a place where citizens live.

At one point Canada was a driving force behind the creation of the Arctic Council. Then we lost interest except for short-term profit extraction through mining. The Scandinavians had to take over as the effective leaders. As Ralston-Saul explains, “we refused to invest money in the livelihoods of all peoples there.”

This is why Canada remains the only circumpolar country without an Arctic university. When pushed by the Council to demonstrate responsibility in strengthening the well-being our northern society by hosting a university, a decision was pushed to Finland.

Another reason this discrimination continues is that decision making continues to be controlled by hands of Southern Canada who true enough, have little understanding and living experience of the differences that need to be respected to uphold sustainable living, let alone basic survival. Instead, anti- seal hunting movements were encouraged as propaganda in the South, enforcing “modern” development projects that made Northern Canadians to rely on grocery stores to ship expensive produce that can only come in by plane. Interviewers from the film Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things, reported the documented cases where whole Inuit dog-sled teams were shot outback across the Territories so to prevent these families from acquiring their normal food sources.

Moreover, many of the independent research bases that worked on monitoring climate change and sustainable development have been shut down during the last government and focused on corporate development and defense. Meanwhile, hiring of short-term southern living researchers based for 3 months is neither practical or efficient rather supporting northern-based approach to those who understand and have long term experience on northern living.

Considering the very limited opportunity and social services for Northerners, Saul exclaims “the choice should not be between being ignored and accepting jobs on someone else’s conditions. There is a bigger picture filled with social conditions, rights, a broader sense of the economy that includes people and the environment.

Affected by this disparity without initiative of change, citizens are becoming empowered, collaborating with green technology and sustainable grassroots initiatives. For example, Ryerson University has started trial greenhouses in Nunavut. This year, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in Dawson City, Yukon started an on-the-land program teaching agricultural skills to young people and trying to grow food security and sustainability in the region. Not only growing local nutritional produce but also providing a sense of purpose back to these communities, providing critical re-education to the youth of the North.

However, these are only infant stages as they struggle with funding in order for this sustainable movement across the North. More collaborative Research and Development is essential to discovering sustainable living techniques applicable in the north. In other words: teams integrating existing aboriginal methods/techniques with recent developments in science (high efficiency solar cells, non-toxic insulation, construction techniques to minimize impact on permafrost, biodegradable plastics) to create technology suitable for sustainability in the North.

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, after his last concert due to brain cancer came out with a statement following his new song dedicated to a boy who froze to death trying to return back to his family during the Residential School Era.

“We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable. ‘White’ Canada knew – on somebody’s purpose – nothing about this. We weren’t taught it in school; it was hardly ever mentioned. All of those Governments, and all of those Churches, for all of those years, misused themselves. They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder. Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are.”

If Canadians recognize this isn’t the country we stand for, we have the resources (human and material), capability, and drive as a nation to change this.

Karli Zschogner

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