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Sustainability in Canada’s North

The landscape of the Canadian North is diverse and expansive. The three territories—Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut—make up almost 40 per cent of the county’s landmass but are home to less than 1 per cent of the population. Although it may seem at first glance that Canada’s North would be an inhospitable environment, Indigenous Peoples have made the land home for thousands of years. Some of the common foods eaten in the North by the Inuit and First Nations people included seal, beluga, caribou, char, and wild berries. These are known as traditional or country foods.

Today, the North is the most food insecure region in Canada with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis adults living in the region experiencing food insecurity at levels five to six times higher than the Canadian national average.(1) This gives the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal of “Zero Hunger” a powerful relevance in the territories. The situation is especially severe in Nunavut where 57 per cent of people experience food insecurity.(2) This is four times higher than the Canadian average and the highest documented rate amongst Indigenous populations living in a developed country.(3) Additionally, 70 per cent of Inuit preschoolers do not have enough to eat.(4) As the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are interlinked, it will take a multifaceted effort to reduce hunger and ensure no one is left behind.

There are a number of reasons why more people go hungry in the North. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, many communities were nomadic or semi-nomadic, meaning they moved to follow their food sources. The transition to community settlement resulted in less access to traditional food harvested from the land and a higher reliance on food found in the grocery store. The North is also geographically isolated. Many communities in the North do not have an all-season road, which makes transportation difficult and costly. Often, goods must be delivered to the community by air. As a result, food prices are much higher than they are in the south. In Nunavut, groceries can cost two to three times more than they would in other places in Canada,(5) but wages remain low while unemployment remains high. Increasing economic and work opportunities (SDG Goal 8) in the territory would also help put more food on people’s plates.

The continued effects of colonization have also negatively impacted access to food in Canada’s North. Many children attended residential schools, which were used to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. In these schools, children were not allowed to speak their languages or express their culture.(6) This resulted in a loss of knowledge of traditional hunting and gathering practices, which caused more people to rely on store-bought food once they returned to their communities.

Climate change has also had a negative effect on access to food in the North. Temperatures are rising faster in the North than they are in the rest of Canada,(7) (8) which has negatively impacted people’s ability to carry out traditional hunting, fishing, and foraging activities. The higher temperatures are causing sea ice to melt, which threatens the seal, walrus, and polar bear populations. As the ground warms and permafrost thaws, transportation also becomes more difficult and dangerous. In 2019, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, located in Old Crow, the northernmost community in the Yukon, declared a climate emergency.(9) Addressing climate change (SDG Goal 13) will be an important step to ensuring a continued food supply in the region.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has added yet another barrier to food access and security in the North.(10) Despite these challenges, communities continue to use innovative and traditional methods to tackle the issue and reach Goal 2: Zero Hunger. For the Inuit—which means “the people” in Inuktitut—sharing country food is an important way to reduce hunger across Inuit Nunangat—the Inuit homeland in Canada. Sharing food allows community members to tackle Goal 2: Zero Hunger from the ground up and reinforces important Inuit principles like Avatimit Kamatsiarniq (environmental stewardship), Piliriqatigiingniq (working together for the common good), Qanuqtuurunnarniq (being resourceful to solve problems), and Pijitsirarni (the concept of serving others).(11) These principles are found in the Young Hunters Program, which helps improve food security, increase community wellness, and build climate resilience.(12) The community-based and Inuit-led program began in 2012 and has continued throughout the pandemic, helping youth from eight to eighteen learn sustainable harvesting practices of animals like beluga and seal.(13) The program contributes to Goal 14: Life Below Water and Goal 15: Life on Land, which aims to sustainably manage land, water, and the animals living in these environments.

In addition to traditional ways, new technologies are being used to grow food in previously inhospitable environments. In Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, a greenhouse is producing lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetables.(14) The greenhouse is housed in two shipping containers and uses windmills, solar panels, and a generator for power. The project is called Naurvik (the growing place). In Inuvik, Northwest Territories, 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, an arena was turned into a community greenhouse. The greenhouse season runs from May to the end of September and receives twenty-four hours of sunlight during the summer,(15) allowing for ample growing time. These initiatives use infrastructure and innovation (SDG Goal 9) to address food insecurity.

Although life in the North can be difficult, communities are showing that a combination of traditional knowledge and technological advances can be used to reach the sustainable development goals, and that advances in agriculture and a strong community spirit can be used to tackle the goal of “Zero Hunger.” With many Indigenous communities leading the way, the future of the North is looking bright.

Editor’s Note: The Indigenous groups who live in the North are diverse and have different traditions, cultures, and ways of life. Their knowledge is an essential asset for communities to be able to reach the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. A strong, healthy, and prosperous North will be built by the people who call the region home. If you would like to learn more about life in Northern Canada, there are many books, movies, and pieces of music created by Northern Indigenous artists. The National Film Board of Canada has an extensive free library of films and documentaries. Or, if you have the opportunity, plan a trip to the North and experience the region for yourself!

For more information on The Sustainable Development Goals explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.


1 Food Secure Canada—Affordable Food in the North

6 The Canadian Encyclopedia—Inuit Experiences at Residential School

10 The McGill International Review—COVID-19 is Worsening Food Insecurity in Nunavut, 2020

13 Aqqiumavvik Arviat Wellness Society—Young Hunters Program


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