The last of the large snow piles left behind from the clearing of the church parking lot are slowly seeping into the ground and the ice pans jumbled on the river bank during breakup are almost gone. The sun is now up and will be for the next month, circling the horizon 24 hours. This makes daytime temperatures quite pleasant though the mercury can still dip down below the freezing mark at night.
As in other parts of the country with spring weather comes gardening but it must be done a little differently up here. The delta offers good fertile soil but the fluctuation in daily temperature makes for a short growing season and outdoor gardening, for the most part, is a dubious prospect. However, inside the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, seeds are already sprouting and those who started seedlings indoors back in April will soon see the first blossoms on their tomatoes.
The facility, run by the Inuvik Community Garden Society, is the result of the conversion of an old hockey arena which once belonged to Sir Alexander Mackenzie School. The residential school was torn to the ground a few years ago but the re-purposed arena is now helping to bring out of the ground good healthy food for the community. The greenhouse encloses over 100 8-ft. by 4-ft. raised beds for society members as well as providing growing space for local group homes, the homeless shelter and the community foodbank.
In recent years, the society has expanded its mandate and has now set up pilot greenhouse projects in communities across the western Arctic. Individuals and groups are digging in, learning new skills and putting a dent in their grocery bill along the way.
The people of the North were not always vegetable eaters and some still are not. Country food, as it is known, is still an important part of the diet. In May, the birds return on their migration routes and the goose hunt is on. The game harvest provides fresh fowl for the table and hopefully a few extra for the freezer for the winter months that lay not so far ahead. Fishing is a year-round pursuit and follows the cycles of the fish as they move from river to ocean and back again. Inland there is caribou on the tundra and moose farther south in the forest. On the coast, Beluga whale is a coveted resource for the annual supply of muktuk, a much-loved food for its flavour, high caloric content and excellent nutritional value.
The bounty of nature is immense, but while land and sea does provide, it is not always predictable and for some it remains inaccessible. Food security is an issue in the north. It costs money to hunt and fish as gas for quad and boat is very expensive and nets, guns and bullets are not free. For those who must purchase food, grocery prices continue to rise as they do across the country, but at an even higher rate.
In 2014 Health Canada commissioned an Expert Panel Assessment of Aboriginal Food Security in the Canadian North which concluded: “Food insecurity presents a particularly serious and growing challenge in Canada’s northern and remote Aboriginal communities.” Moreover, “Evidence indicates that people who are food insecure are more susceptible to malnutrition and infection, as well as chronic health problems such as obesity, anemia, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stress, and child developmental issues. Mental health effects of food insecurity include reduced ability to learn, depression, and social exclusion.”
With the problem of food security an important concern, the church has responded with some initiatives to help take a bite out of the problem. The Western Regional Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has, for the past number of years, provided food staples to the western Arctic through the “North of 60” program. This program utilizes the vast network of parishes in southern urban settings to collect donations of food and clothing which are then shipped by truck and river barge to communities across the western Arctic.
Locally our parishes and missions respond with face-to-face ministries that include services like the Community Kitchen in Inuvik, offering hospitality and warm food to the homeless throughout the winter months. Through rummage sales, local St. Vincent de Paul members raise money helping to support the local food bank in Inuvik and Sr. Fay Tromblay operates the only food bank in Tuktoyaktuk out of her home with the help of members of the Catholic faith community.
Tackling hunger is a basic first step in our ministry in the Arctic. Like Jesus, who fed the 5,000 gathered to hear him speak, we are aware that the “Good News” falls on deaf ears when the stomach is speaking louder than the preacher.
Hansen is a Redemptorist priest and pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish, Inuvik. See his website: www.jonhansencssr.com