Gettin' the real goods on the north 

When groceries get political

click to flip through (3) PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID GIBBS - NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART: On the shelves of the local Co-Op store in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, about an hour's flight east of Iqaluit.
  • Photo courtesy of David Gibbs
  • NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART: On the shelves of the local Co-Op store in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, about an hour's flight east of Iqaluit.
   
 

My husband was born in Montreal. But he lived in Prince George for years and always laughs when people call it "up north." If you check a map you'll see that Prince George is actually very close to the geographical centre of B.C.

Most of us Canucks live near the 49th parallel. About 70 per cent of us actually live south of it. And I think most of the time when we hear stories about how expensive food is "up north" and how challenging it is to source good food, and we've been to places like Prince George, we picture those kinds of grocery stores, products and pricing.

Sure, choices are more limited and berries from the Fraser Valley or even milk is more expensive than in Vancouver, but to understand what it's like feeding yourself and your family "up north" you have to check out a place that's genuinely "up north," like Pangnirtung on Baffin Island.

Locals call it "Pang," and it's at 67°N latitude where winter temperatures often hit -40°C. But to make things easier and skip the $3,000, 12-hour flight from YVR (that doesn't include the two layovers), and the basic hotel room at $275 a night (you'll have to share a bathroom), you could talk to David Gibbs instead.

If you grew up in Pemberton in the 1970s, you likely know the Gibbs family. Dad, Gordie, ran the local RCMP detachment while mom, Angie, taught at Signal Hill Elementary School. Now David's work takes him across Canada, including Nunavut, where he's helping implement an electronic health record system in community health centres there. And his stories are the kind that make reality hit home.

"These are small, isolated communities with mostly an Inuit population — and what 'isolated' means is really interesting," says David. "The only way in and out is an airplane. There are no roads to any other town, so it's snowmobiles in winter or ATVs in summer.

"Any other community is days away." Days.

Need milk? At the local Co-Op store in Pang, reports David, four litres is $12.47. A container of Becel is $14.99. And you'll have to cough up $22.99 for eight fillets of Bluewater breaded and frozen haddock or six pieces of cod.

In a crazy kind of irony, there's a local fish processing plant in Pang as well as the only small-craft harbour in Nunavut, where commercial fishing boats can land. Frozen, processed fish like turbot or Arctic char may well come from waters a stone's throw from the Co-op.

If you need a fix of fresh berries or exotic fruit every day, you likely don't want to live anywhere in Nunavut. Yes, you can make eggplant parmigiana, but the key ingredients will come in around 25 bucks and you likely will be missing things like fresh basil and genuine Parmesan cheese.

But if you really want something — say, a case of your favourite tinned olives or that Parmesan — and you can afford to do so, David says you can bring it in using a "sea lift."

For a good price, companies will ship a container of whatever you want to Iqaluit, where there's only a six-week, ice-free window when the ship is able to sail into the harbour. The containers are moved onto a barge, which travels in as far as it can since there are no docks. When the tide goes out leaving the barge stranded on land, a fleet of trucks and loaders drive out and fetch your "sea lift" of food and more to shore.

While feeding yourself and your family "up north" can be, well, unique, for most it's downright challenging. Typically — meaning, without a "sea lift," which can cost thousands — it takes about $500 a week to feed a household with two kids on a diet that might be best described as the kind of canned, frozen, packaged food that used to star in institutional cafeterias like the one at your old high school.

Well-paid government workers, of which there are many, will pay whatever they need to get what they want, because they can. But most locals (The Globe and Mail reports median income in Nunavut was just under $20,000 last year) have to supplement with "country food," meaning food that's off the land or from local waters — when they can find it.

"One of the locals was saying how there are no caribou — you'd have to drive for three days to find caribou," says David. Alternatively, you can arrange to buy a caribou from hunters in other areas that still have them, but it will cost you about $500.

Which leads us to the way food in the north has become a federal election issue this time around.

You might have heard about Leesee Papatsie. She started the Feeding My Family group that runs a Facebook page getting lots of attention as they share the reality of the high costs of feeding your family in Nunavut. Google their site, and you can read all about it.

One of their main beefs — no pun intended — is that the Conservative government's 2011 Nutrition North program to relieve food costs for Nunavut residents is, basically, a sham.

According to Ms. Papatsie and her group, little if any of the money in the Nutrition North program actually reaches the families who need it because the monies go to retailers, who aren't necessarily passing the savings on to shoppers.

A critical Auditor General's report says there's such a lack of transparency in the system you can't tell who the savings are going to. But Ms. Papatsie, and company, maintain that it's not to them, so they're looking to us southerners to lobby our MPs for better food security for the north (feedingnunavut.com).

After digesting these reality tales from David and Ms. Papatsie, I'll add my own spin and say think about all this when you vote, and I'm not even starting down the climate change road and how that's going to hit the remaining supply of Nunavut's country food.

The first step is to get our collective head out of Prince George about the realities of northern life.

Next, consider the power of persuasion we the masses hold living our cozy lives here near the 49th — masses with so much voting power, and so little real awareness of the Arctic, which is a huge part of our nation — but barely a pinprick in our minds.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who values Canada's real north, black flies and all.

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