Nunavut: Northern Food Prices and Kudos to Leesee Papatsie

This morning, I came across an article on the CBC News North online service which reported the fact that a local woman by the name of Leesee Papatsie has recently been recognized for her activism in bringing something of a spotlight on to the high cost of living here in the North. My first thought was it was high-time that she received some public recognition for her much-needed efforts but, at the same time, I also had to acknowledge, with not a little shame, that I am not really in a position to be too overly critical of the media. I actually began collecting information on the issue a couple of months ago with a view to writing a post on the topic, but, for various reasons (none convincingly exculpatory), the project has since been languishing on the proverbial back-burner. Accordingly, I have put some less important posts on hold with a view to rectifying my neglect…

I took the picture you see above back in July when a long simmering discontent over food prices in the Arctic regions began to come to a head, largely through the efforts of people like Ms. Papatsie. For a few months before the organized protests, there was considerable online discussion of the topic (all followed assiduously by my wife) that started to draw some attention from down south. As a northerner, my interest in the matter was considerably more than just potential fodder for my food blog, but, as I looked at the subject with a view to writing about it, it became increasingly more apparent that the issues are much more complex than appear at a superficial glance. Amidst all the (often legitimate) rancor, there is considerable misinformation on both sides, and, particularly in opinions expressed by southerners weighing in on the issues, some very real and palpable ignorance that has, quite understandably, angered many residents here in the North…

Much of the ill-feeling up in these regions is by and large due to what is commonly perceived as price ‘gouging’ by big business; that is to say, rampant corporate greed taking advantage of a victimized ‘captive’ market. Some of our discontent was reflected in this News North Article, which does briefly address some particular price concerns, but, though there may indeed be fire where there is smoke, as they say, it must be recognized that there are always two sides to every issue. Two salient points need to be borne in mind:

  • It is an inescapable fact that the cost of air-freight for daily food transport is going to be reflected in costs to some degree; and;
  • The prices of certain items in the North are not always significantly higher than they are down south.

The picture of this package of bacon was taken in July (on the same day as the protest in Iqaluit, actually) and in researching for this article, I located a price for bacon in the western provinces in a Sobey’s flyer for the same period. There, a 500g package was being sold at just $.3.99.

I have to admit, that the difference between $14.59 and $3.99 is a little hard to explain away either by brand quality or air-freight costs, and, as a northern resident with very few options, I, for one, would like some satisfactory answers. Still, that being said though, I feel it only fair to point out that, during the course of the aforementioned research, I also frequently came across prices for products that were either much the same in the north as in the south, or else not unreasonably higher having regard to transportation costs. Clearly, the disparity of prices is an issue that is not always purely black or white.

On the issue of price gouging, we must be careful to let reason and investigation rather than rumor and innuendo carry the day. There is no doubt that, in some areas, greed is responsible for high prices but we need to properly identify those responsible. Retailers point the finger at the airlines, all concerned point fingers at the government, and those ‘pointed at’ all have responses with varying degrees of credibility.

I, for one, am regularly dismayed and annoyed when I am charged a full government ‘per diem’ rate for meals that are clearly far, far cheaper to prepare than the price demanded. I don’t want to stray too far from the main topic, but having no choice but to pay $35 or so for a second rate burger and fries in hotels that are supposedly ‘community’ concerns leads me to the conclusion that we don’t need to look to far from our own doorstep to find price gouging. It is easy to demonize faceless entities for our current woes but the problem is inherent at all levels and to properly address the issue we need to do two things:

  • Undertake a thorough and balanced study to identify actual price disparities; and,
  • Properly investigate the reasons underlying those differences.

It is clear that, as Northerners, we need to educate ourselves on the actual facts, but I am also glad to see that a little bit of information on the realities of Arctic life is slowly being brought to the consciousness of those in the south. I recall many years ago, after having been only two or three years in the North (and living in Pond Inlet at the time), my mother, quite innocently, asked if my wife and I would ‘get a garden in this year’. Naturally, we were both flabbergasted and a little frustrated that she really didn’t appreciate just where it is we were living but that sort of complete misunderstanding of this whole region is endemic to much of the country and hardly unique. A little ignorance is, sadly, only to be expected, I suppose, but what really has fanned the flames of this whole issue has been the attitudes of those southerners who arrogantly weighed in by responding to Northern complaints without ever taking the trouble to familiarize themselves with the facts.

In the aforementioned News North Article, one correspondent suggested we start dairy farms up here to offset high milk prices, and, in a similar vein, my wife felt obligated to respond to one particularly self-righteous ignoramus in a Facebook discussion who, with the clear inference that we are all lazy up here, suggested we should get off our behinds and ‘work the land’. Others, with an attitude that has truly angered many, have made it clear that we should all just move south (or, by logical extension) just shut-up and live with the problems. Well… to all those arm-chair ‘experts’ with sufficient time to pontificate on things they know nothing about, I would offer a couple of home truths:

  • Nunavut is an Arctic desert. There is no soil here. Permafrost, a freezing climate, and unique sunlight conditions mean that only a few specially adapted plant forms can thrive here. ‘Working the land’, therefore, is not an option;
  • Dairy cows require fodder and heated accommodation. If anyone can explain how shipping hay bales and the requisite fuel up here would be cheaper than flying in milk, then we are all ears;
  • Over 80 percent of the population up here are indigenous. This is their ancestral home and the suggestion that they simply move south for better food prices and services is nothing short of insulting;
  • Canada’s policy of sovereignty over it’s Arctic stretches requires a population here. Let’s not forget that many Inuit, under extremely unhappy circumstances, were relocated even further north than their ancestral origins in order to further this policy; and, finally,
  • The national economic interest in just exploiting the mineral resources up here also requires people to actually be here. Possibly those who advocate a mass relocation south would be happy to underwrite the costs for us all to commute up here on a daily basis?

Well, that is probably enough diatribe for now… In the final analysis, I am not remotely competent to suggest final solutions to the current problems but I can say that public education is the first, important step. Thankfully, Ms. Papatsie has shown herself willing to start work in this direction and so I will close with a final kudos to her and her ilk…

10 thoughts on “Nunavut: Northern Food Prices and Kudos to Leesee Papatsie”

  1. The photo of the young girl with a sign saying “I need milk” was heart-wrenching. And I was appalled to see the pricing; $14.59 for bacon!! Thank you for the information.

  2. This is really interesting. I don’t know that much about “far north”, but even I, a drawling, slow moving (and to some stereo-typing persons) knuckle dragging Southerner can look at a map and wonder how one could “work the land” and have a dairy farm in a desert, much less an arctic desert. To quote my great-grandfather, “That’s 20 pounds of stupid in a 5 pound bag.”

    1. There’s no shortage of idiots anywhere you go… It’s funny though, we don’t really seem to have quite the same North-South stereotyping as in the US… with only 33,000 here in Nunavut (a place the size of western Europe) and only 110,000 across all three northern territories, there probably aren’t enough of us to have a steretype yet (especially as so few in the rest of Canada are much aware of our existence).

  3. What exactly are the protestors asking for? Do they want the governmnet to intervene and subsidize food prices? Are they asking food producers to lower their prices? If the latter, that includes thousands of companies all of whom are competing against each other profit.

    Those prices are ridiculous and the residents of Nunavut are justified to be angry, but I’m not sure what’s to be done. What do you think?

    1. There is no easy fix and I don’t think the protesters generally have anything specific in mind other than expressing anger. The problem is that somewhere betwixt farm and plate prices on *some* items get jacked up way more than transportation costs demand…. these specific abuses need to be identified and spotlighted…. public attention and directed outrage should go a long way to shaming the abusers bringing prices in line with what is reasonable… not what thay have managed to get away with for too long.

  4. I would suggest you or someone write/send a well-written article to the Globe and Mail, Facts and ARguments column. They review submissions from the public and select. The word limit is around 900 words.

    Seriously. The rest of CAnada needs to be educated.

    Great that you are doing it here in your blog.

  5. great post – bravo! when the issue gets clouded by emotion & ignorance, progress comes to a standstill. your post is thoughtful and thought provoking. i lived by the beach for many years. we all knew, get gas, milk and bread by thursday latest or we’d pay more come friday. there are often good reasons prices go up but there are also those who are not content with a fair profit margin in a market that is as difficult to serve as yours.

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