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[pictobrowser type=”flickr” userID=”57913121@N04″ albumID=”72157626269834460″]Using cameras to focus on Northern diet

March/April 2011 | by Tim Lougheed

For centuries, European explorers seeking the Northwest Passage ate poorly, often paying the ultimate price for not knowing how to sustain themselves in the harsh environment of Canada’s North. At the same time, the indigenous people of this region ate well, having mastered the essential skills to wrest a balanced diet from this same unforgiving environment.

Today the dining tables are turned, as many Inuit find themselves facing their own set of nutritional challenges. In some cases, the difficulty stems from changes that were once welcomed, such as the replacement of dog teams with snowmobiles or traditional qajaqs with powerboats. These technological enhancements are expensive to acquire and operate, which drastically reduces the number of people who can hunt or fish.

Communities consequently find themselves supplied with far less “country food,” like caribou or seal, so rich in fats, oils, and vitamins that Inuit historically could thrive for a lifetime on a diet almost entirely lacking in fruits or vegetables. Meanwhile, improved transportation has increased the amount of processed food shipped in from southern Canada. The most popular of these items include snacks like soft drinks, chocolate bars, or potato chips, which have introduced salt, sugar, and empty calories to a formerly healthy Arctic diet.

Researchers are beginning to assess the toll that these changes are taking on Northern residents. In 2004, for example, Santé Quebec conducted Qanuippitaa, a major health survey of the Nunavik region in the Northern part of the province. ArcticNet, a federally funded research network, sponsored the use of the Canadian icebreaker Amundsen to visit settlements along the coast and conduct physical examinations of their residents. Nasivvik, another federally funded Inuit health project based at Laval University and Trent University, has tailored these activities in order to make the participants not simply research subjects, but partners and leaders in the work.

Qanuippitaa, Inuktitut for “How are we,” offered a definitive portrait of issues such as drinking water quality, smoking, and infectious and chronic diseases. While this survey identified food insecurity as a major concern in Nunavik, this information came only through formal questionnaires. Researchers therefore wanted to pursue this crucial matter further through participatory research methods, encouraging Northern residents themselves to consider what they are now eating and why.

One of the most effective methods for encouraging this kind of participation is a technique known as photovoice. Individuals in a community are outfitted and trained with cameras, then asked to take pictures based on a key question. After several days, the group meets to share their pictures and identify the themes that make up a response to that question.

Photovoice has been employed by members of the Qaujigiartiit/Arctic Health Research Network, the first Canadian tri-territorial health research network linking Northern regions through health research centres based in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Marie-Pierre Lardeau, a researcher with McGill University’s Department of Geography, immediately appreciated the potential of photovoice to shed new light on food security in the North. With the support of ArcticNet and Nasivvik she has adopted this innovative method of teasing out the details of people’s everyday lives through a combination of candid photography and storytelling.

“The participants are no longer participants per se — they’re co-researchers,” explains Lardeau. “They’re all working with you, and they become sort of journalists within the community. They’re documenting an issue and then decide as a group what to do with this information. They’re really the owners of the information.”

She adds that the work has focused on larger communities, where social and environ mental conditions are changing rapidly, but where there has been very little investigation of services such as food banks or soup kitchens. Since 2009, Lardeau has taken part in photovoice projects in Inuvik, Arviat, and Iqaluit, communities where these aspects of food security can be explored.

In Iqaluit, for example, a group of five women and three men were given cameras, along with a question to consider: what aspects of your everyday life affect what you eat and how much you eat? The resulting photographs included images of caribou meat, reinforcing an ongoing preference for country food. But when hunters are in scarce supply, so too is this kind of food. Other pictures outlined alternatives such as grocery stores, where high prices make fresh fare like orange juice inaccessible to many families,who must then settle for less nutritious packaged food.

When even these commodities are out of reach, some people turn to food banks or soup kitchens, where the offerings may be plain but they are freely available. As in other parts of Canada, the use of these institutions carries a certain social stigma. Nevertheless, for reasons that remain unclear, the number of people using them has been increasing over the past few years. In Iqaluit, which has a population of around 7,000, some 360 households have become occasional or regular users of the food bank. The church-run soup kitchen, which has been open for five years, has seen its lunchtime traffic double to almost 70 people per day.

Lardeau also draws attention to a third institution, called Tukisigiarvik, which takes a very different approach to food and community services. Looking much like a family home, this drop-in centre features a kitchen where visitors can make country food that has been supplied by local hunters. The site also has sewing machines, a shower, and laundry facilities, as well as counselling services for everything from personal problems to job hunting. Local elders also serve as advisors on traditional matters, including instruction on skills such as cleaning sealskins.

Unfortunately, Tukisigiarvik may soon be closing its doors. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which has provided most of the centre’s operating funds since 2004, has itself lost its funding from the federal government.

Local organizers are hoping to overcome this loss with piecemeal support from other programs, and Lardeau hopes they succeed. She cites the inherent value of a holistic approach that sets food within a greater social and spiritual context. People may simply refuel at the food bank or the soup kitchen, but they can find a more profound form of sustenance at Tukisigiarvik.

Above all, she explains, this culturally appropriate approach makes much more sense to most Inuit, who are still coming to grips with the broad spectrum of foods that are now available to them, and the negative consequences some of those foods can have.

The results of the Iqaluit project were displayed throughout last summer at the town’s Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, helping to foster discussions surrounding the Nunavut government’s first anti-poverty strategy.

“It became a really interesting way for community members to convey a message to policy makers using photography,” concluded Lardeau.