WonderActivist – Leesee Papatsie

Feeding My Family: Advocate for healthy affordable eating in Canada’s North

carolCarol Devine

En route to Greenland to an Arctic health conference, I stopped in the Canadian Arctic, in Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory. Food is a local and global health and security issue. Approximately 80% of Nunavut’s small population of 32,000 is indigenous people, the Inuit, living in 26 far north communities. Some are accessible only by boat or plane. The Inuit experience worse health outcomes compared to Canada’s general population. Inuit history is 5000 year old. Across the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, the US and Russia, the Inuit are culturally similar. Inuktitut, the main language of the Canadian Inuit, has beautiful characters, or syllabics, such as ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ  (meaning Inuktitut).

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Leesee Papatsie in her kitchen cutting arctic char. Her family eats the char sushi-style. The blade is a traditional knife called an ulu. Photo: Peter McCollough

In Iqualit, Nunavut’s capital, I headed to the public library. The sun was lowering on Frobisher Bay. Soon the snow would come. On a magazine rack I saw Leesee’s photo on the cover of Up Here magazine and the title ‘Northerner of the Year’. I’d discovered a WonderWoman. Leesee, 47, considers her family lucky to be able to eat well. But she won’t tolerate that others can’t. Leesee and her husband have good jobs; she’s an educator for Parks Canada. Leesee’s awakening was meeting a man protesting exorbitant food prices outside a grocery store. His sign read, “Lower food prices! Remove expired products!” Leesee felt she should have joined him. Then she used social media to advocate for affordable healthy and culturally appropriate food for the North. She created a movement, Feeding My Family.

I visited a grocery store in Iqaluit and was shocked at the prices of meats, (sugar) cereal and watermelon, for example. It’s complex: what does nutrition mean to different peoples and how does it relate to culture and wellbeing? In Canada’s north, as in remote communities anywhere, food security also has to do with policy, inequity, self-determination, infrastructure, geography, climate and more. I’m grateful to discover more about my country’s beauty and struggles from Leesee, a humble, generous and effective advocate.

I love how her website describes her home: “Nunavut is the edge of the world in a lot of ways — it’s the farthest-north part of Canada, a broken-up spray of frozen land coming off the top of the country like a very icy mohawk.”

1) Please tell me where you were born and your favourite thing to eat when you were a child.

I was born in Pangnirtung, Nunavut and grew up in Iqaluit. My hometown is Iqaluit. My favorite thing to eat as a child would have been sweets.

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Special K Red Berry cereal for CAD$10.25 in Iqaluit. (in Toronto, Canada grocery store $5.29) Photo: Carol Devine

I wanted to raise awareness about how people in the north struggle to put food on the table. There are a lot of northerners that really cannot afford to buy food. A couple of things that really stick out: a can of frozen concentrated Minute Maid Orange Juice in Arctic Bay was selling for CAD $9.59. Another one: a case of 24 pack water in Clyde River, for CAD $101.00.

3) I read you have five kids, are handy at social media and play popular video games. Why did you decide to start Feeding my Family as a Facebook page?

In the north, the communities are isolated; it is extremely expensive to fly from one community to another. One of the ways northerners work around this is through social media like Facebook. I know a lot of people use Facebook up here to connect to the outside world.

4) In the NorthMart grocery store in Iqaluit I saw a sign “Making Healthy Choices More Affordable”, a guarantee from NorthMart, “collaborating with AANDC, Health Canada and community leaders to find solutions”. Have you seen a difference to affordable food prices?

I have seen fresh fruits and veggies prices lower. That is about all. Healthy Choices: according to whose culture? Inuit have country food* ingrained in their bodies, this is the food for most of the northerners, not fruit and veggies. So, this needs to be better defined and to meet the northerners real needs.

*Inuit refer to their traditional diet as country food. Inuit receive their country food by hunting, fishing and harvesting which is an integral part of life. [from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami factsheet]

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Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, Canada’s largest territory (means “the place of many fish” in Inuktituk) Photo: Carol Devine

Country foods by far are the best in nutrition, there is no doubt about that. There needs to be more awareness on how country food is the most nutritious for northerners. It is also continuation of our tradition. This is also important.

6) You hunt. What do you hunt? What percentage of your family’s diet do you think hunting contributes and would you like to or is it feasible or desirable to hunt/fish more? Do you have concerns about toxins in the country foods you eat?

We hunt anything we can hunt: seal, whales, caribou, fish, ptarmigan, rabbit. We try to eat this whenever we can; I think it is about 20 or 30 percent [of our diet], depending on the hunting season. Yes, I worry about toxins but as reports have said: eat country food; this is better.

7) What has surprised you about reactions to your food security and pricing advocacy – both from your community and others?

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Iqaluit. Elementary School (white building, left) and church (white building, right) Photo: Carol Devine

[What’s surprised me is] people supporting our cause; northerners stepping up to post pictures when [taking photos] has been restricted by the stores; northerners speaking up about the hardship they are enduring. Southerners saying I can’t believe this is happening in Canada. I cannot believe this site had continued this far [the group now has nearly 20,000 members].

Leesee’s website summarizes the group’s objectives based on feedback: empowering Northerners at the grassroots, urging for a unified Northern voice, encouraging competition to lower food prices, urging for improved food quality and inventory controls such as reducing transit time for perishables, requesting government policy makers and retailers to find better ways to reduce prices, requesting more food banks and finally, encouraging collaboration with Government and other NGOs to improve the quality of life for Northerners.

Carol Devine – Activism + Culture
Carol is a Canadian writer, researcher and humanitarian with insatiable wanderlust. For Doctors Without Borders she defended humanitarian principles in Rwanda, Sudan and East Timor. For the Diplomacy Training Program, University of New South Wales, she co-trained Aboriginal, Tibetan and Burmese youth. Carol also led the first Antarctic civilian volunteer ecological expedition. Carol is currently trying meditation, to learn more physics and get back on her skateboard. Carol can be contacted at: www.theantarcticbookofcookingandcleaning.com
Life Balance = Run. Explore. Laugh. 

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