A Human Rights Approach to Food Insecurity in Inuit Nunangat

Hannah Feldman

ARTSSCI 4CI3: Diversity and Human Rights Inquiry

Experiences of food insecurity are pervasive across Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland comprising Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, and the Northwest Territories (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2017). These widespread and disproportionate experiences of food insecurity in Inuit Nunangat require critical examination, especially when access to adequate food has been identified as a human right (OHCHR, 2010). A human rights lens prompts important questions about Canada’s obligation to respond to food insecurity in Inuit Nunangat. In this paper, I argue that Canada has domestic and international obligations to uphold rights to food, health, and Indigenous self-determination; however, the Canadian government has failed to endorse these human rights in relation to food security in Inuit Nunangat. More effective actualization of these rights-based obligations is needed: first, the government must reconstruct domestic policy to increase the enforceability of food rights in Canada; and second, there must be strengthened collaboration between the government and Inuit partners to more appropriately conceptualize, and respond to, food needs in Inuit Nunangat. I first provide background to food (in)security and Inuit food systems, outline applicable human rights frameworks that intersect with Inuit food insecurity, and conclude by evaluating Canada’s current response, with recommendations for future action.

Background: Food Insecurity in Inuit Nunangat

Food security was aptly defined in the 1996 World Food Summit, and this definition continues to be endorsed by the Canadian government (Power, 2008). Food security refers to the “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food,” for all people, at all times, “that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy life” (Food and Agriculture Organization 1996). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) outlines four components of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability (FAO, 2006). Food availability means that there are sufficient amounts of food obtainable for consumption. Food access indicates that individuals have the means to acquire nutritionally and culturally appropriate foods; these means are often referred to as “entitlements,” as in legal, political, economic, and social resources. Food utilization mandates that food meets nutritional and physiological needs. Lack of fresh produce, clean water, or sanitation measures are examples of food utilization factors that impact food security. Finally, food stability entails constant access to food at all times (FAO, 2006). In short, an individual who is food secure has stable access to food that is adequate, appropriate, and usable.

Existing Inuit food systems rely on both market foods from the south and country (traditional) foods from the land (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2017). However, both store-bought and country food remain inaccessible, inadequate, inappropriate, and/or unusable for many individuals. In 2012, more than half (52%) of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat over the age of 25 lived in a household that experienced food insecurity within the previous year (Arriagada, 2017). Some individuals are especially vulnerable to food insecurity. Generally speaking, Inuit are more likely than non-Indigenous northerners to experience food insecurity (Leblanc-Laurendeau, 2019); but Inuit women, families on social assistance, single parent families, those who are unemployed, and those struggling with addiction are even more likely to be food insecure (Arriagada, 2017; Fergurson, 2011). Children are especially susceptible. In 2008, 70% of Inuit preschool children in Nunavut experienced some degree of food insecurity (Leblanc-Laurendeau, 2019). Overall, these individuals experience increased financial stress and often lack the means to alter their socio-economic position. Food insecurity in Inuit Nunangat must therefore be understood as a reflection, and amplification, of economic and social disadvantage.

What factors have enabled these dramatic rates of food insecurity in Inuit Nunangat? First, efforts to assimilate Inuit have had significant consequences on their food systems. There is a longstanding history of racist policies exercised by the Canadian government to exert control over Inuit and animal populations in the North. These policies continue to impact many individuals, families, and communities today. Land dispossession, for example, forced Inuit into underfunded communities with dismal living infrastructure, separating communities from familiar food sources (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2017, p. 9). Moreover, the residential and day school system enforced throughout the twentieth century halted the intergenerational transmission of ecological knowledge as “many Inuit were unable to learn and then pass on these essential life skills” (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2017, p. 9). Moreover, the slaughter of sled dogs, documented in the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, has similarly destabilized Inuit food systems. Sled dogs provide important transportation for hunting, yet members of the RCMP began systematically killing loose sled dogs in the 1950’s. The commission summarizes that hunters found these shootings to be “illogical, unnecessary, and also harmful” for hunting practices and for communities at large (Qikiqtani Inuit Association, 2013, p. 15). These selected historical examples emphasize how colonization has undermined current food stability in many Inuit communities, disrupting traditional hunting practices and diminishing Inuit power over food.

Modern forms of colonialism continue to this day, including growing pressure to adopt a westernized diet. The westernization of diets in Inuit Nunangat involves the transition to low-cost, high-caloric, and highly processed foods (Qikiqtani Inuit Association, 2019). Although these foods are more affordable, they lack the nutrients necessary for a healthy diet (Fergurson, 2011). One woman shared her experiences in a Nunavut-based focus group: “I usually buy pop, chocolate to fill them [her children] up. It’s cheaper than other foods, cheaper than fruits and milk” (quoted in Chan et al., 2006). Another participant, a female elder, adds: “When one eats seal, you are full all day. When you eat packaged foods, 2 hours later you get cold” (quoted in Chan et al., 2006). Socio-economic and cultural shifts have also influenced engagement with traditional harvesting. The combined costs for a weekend hunt, including gas and ammunition, may be near $200 (Fergurson, 2011), making many hunters “increasingly reluctant” to access country food, and even less likely to share with others (Fergurson, 2011). The imposition of legislation to limit hunting also impacts engagement with traditional harvesting, limiting access to country foods. For example, the Species at Risk Act of 2002 imposed hunting quotas that have inhibited Inuit ability to hunt and trade (Fergurson, 2011). These restrictions have ultimately resulted in significant barriers to accessing local species, impeding subsistence-based diets. Many young people are also preferring to learn skills that help them participate in the wage-based economy, instead of learning traditional hunting techniques (Fergurson, 2011). Colonial pressures towards both westernized diets and careers create a growing disconnection from traditional ways of living, with “decreased transfer of cultural knowledge from elders to young people” (Power, 2008, p. 96). This disconnection is especially concerning as traditional foods are an integral component of Inuit wellbeing and identity; as the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (2019) summarizes: “colonization has disconnected us from harvesting, the very cultural practice that reinvigorates our sense of identity, feeds our communities and stimulates our local economy” (p. 4).

The majority of Inuit communities are also geographically isolated. Geographic isolation, in conjunction with the westernization of diets, creates dependency on shipments to bring southern food to grocery stores in the North, making food prices “prohibitively high” (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2017). Even with efforts to subsidize the cost of transportation, private grocery stores have been known to “price gouge,” surging product prices for profit (Fergurson, 2011). According to the Revised Northern Food Basket, it costs approximately $400 a week for healthy food to feed a family of four, whereas the same shopping list costs closer to $200 in a southern city (Leblanc-Laurendeau, 2019). Indeed, in 2012 almost one-third (32%) of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat “ate less than they should have eaten” because they could not afford food (Arriagada, 2017). These prices are especially concerning considering the high rates of poverty and low average household income across Inuit Nunangat. In Nunavut, for example, half of Inuit adults earn less than $20,000, but the annual cost of groceries for a family of four is around $19,760 (Council of Canadian Academies, 2014). Beyond high prices, reliance on inconsistent flight shipments means food in stores suffer from insufficient quantities and poor quality, with perishable foods growing mold or being sold past expiry (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2017). Moreover, this barrier of remote geography can be understood as a product of newfound reliance on southern market foods. Indeed, Inuit communities have always been geographically removed from the southern parts of Canada; instead, this geographic isolation is only a barrier to food security due to the development of colonial corporate food systems. As a result, remote geography poses serious barriers to achieving affordable, appropriate, and utilizable food.

Finally, climate change is one of the most pressing factors intersecting with food insecurity in the Inuit regions. Warming temperatures in Arctic territories have made sea ice dangerous and unpredictable for animals and hunters alike, in addition to changing migration patterns, increasing chemical contamination of water and soil systems, and altering food preservation techniques (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2017). Flight schedules for food shipments are also increasingly unpredictable with changes to weather patterns. These effects will inevitably worsen in coming years, as the effects of the climate crisis become more severe. Consequently, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national organization for Inuit in Canada, has called for immediate action from Canada to “reduce the impact of climate change” on Inuit food systems (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2018, p. 39).

A Human Rights Approach to Food Insecurity

Natan Obed, the president of the ITK, calls for better “adherence to and respect for the human rights and values Canadians espouse” (ITK, 2018, p. 3). Adopting a human rights approach to food insecurity functions as both a pathway to investigate, and a tool to inform, legislation regarding food (Ayala & Meier, 2017). As Kallen (2010) explains, a human rights framework holds the Canadian government accountable to their “international reputation” and “constitutional mandate” to grant equal protection of rights to all citizens (p. 46).

Inuit food insecurity intersects with three branches of rights frameworks: specifically, those to food, health, and Indigenous self-determination. Rights to food and health are easily identifiable at an international level. Article 11 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) recognizes a universal right to “an adequate standard of living […] including adequate food” (p. 4). Food insecurity also has serious, and often life-long, implications for health (Ayala & Meier, 2017). The ICESCR additionally recognizes the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” under Article 12 (p. 4). Further, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) specifically addresses children’s right to the “highest attainable standard of health,” which includes the “provision of adequate nutritious foods” to children (p. 7). Canada is a state-party to the ICESCR and therefore legally bound to align domestic policy with the treaty (Kallen, 2010). Canada has also ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child and is, again, legally obliged to enforce the convention through domestic policy (Kallen, 2010). As a result, these conventions hold binding commitments for Canada to ensure access to adequate food necessary for a healthy standard of life for adults and children alike.

There has been some debate, however, about what these commitments to food security rights look like in practice on a national level. Most scholars agree that a government should provide ‘negative’ protection from food-based rights infringement, meaning that the government cannot inhibit access to adequate food (FAO, 2006). For example, the government cannot destroy crops or forcibly evicting people from their land and food sources (FAO, 2006). However, the government is not responsible for providing free food to all citizens—we do not have a “right to be fed” (OHCHR, 2010, p. 3). The more contentious matter is whether a government has a duty to provide ‘positive’ protection of these rights, with the provision of services and welfare that increase access to food. To resolve this debate, the FAO (2006) concludes that a country with a high income and with high levels of malnutrition indicates “a failure to take necessary and appropriate steps to the maximum of available resources” (p. 75). In other words, a country with high income has the means, and thus the responsibility, to ensure all residents have “access to food in all circumstances” (FAO, 2006, p. 75); a country with a high income, but also high levels of malnutrition, has failed to take the “necessary” steps to support food access. Along these lines, Canada—a high-income country—has a responsibility to positively reinforce food rights, yet the high rates of food insecurity among Inuit communities suggests that Canada is not fulfilling this obligation.

It is clear that Canada has international responsibilities to respect and promote human rights to food and health. Still, the true enforceability of these international obligations is only as strong as domestic policy allows (Kallen, 2010). On a national level, has Canada taken measures to assert rights to food and health within the Canadian legal system? Nationally afforded rights to food and health are best captured in the “right to life” under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, as Rideout and colleagues (2007) explain, the Canadian courts “have not yet held that section 7 of the Charter actually requires Canadian governments to respect, protect and fulfil (facilitate and provide) the right to food in Canada” (p. 568). That is, there is not yet legal precedent that section 7 applies to food rights in Canadian courts, negating the enforceability of food rights in Canada under human rights legislation. In addition, enforceability is further hampered due to the slit in jurisdiction over Inuit health between the federal government, responsible for Indigenous affairs, and provincial/territorial governments, responsible for health. There has been criticism that this lack of coordination has impeded protection of rights to food security (Fergurson, 2011). On the whole, rights to food remain largely unenforceable at a national level.

Promoting Inuit food security is also a matter of Indigenous rights protection. International recognition regarding the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples is addressed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, 2007). Article 20 most aptly captures food-specific rights. This section specifies that Indigenous peoples have the right to “engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities” in order to maintain independent subsistence and development, which includes country food harvesting (p. 16). The declaration has significant ramifications for promoting Indigenous food sovereignty. Coté (2015) expresses that UNDRIP is a crucial step towards indigenizing food security: it “enshrined global Indigenous collective rights that constituted the minimum standards for their survival, dignity, and well-being” (p. 63). Under UNDRIP, Inuit have a right to follow self-determined approaches to promote food security, with autonomous decision-making about how to revitalize Indigenous ecological knowledge, food, and control over Indigenous wellbeing (Coté, 2015).

Canada signed on to UNDRIP in 2016 (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, 2016). However, an international declaration is not a convention: UNDRIP is not legally binding. Instead, the impact of UNDRIP rests exclusively on Canada’s independent dedication to promoting Indigenous rights domestically, as outlined in international law. Carolyn Bennett explains that “adopting and implementing the Declaration means that we will be breathing life into Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution” (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, 2016). Unfortunately, Canada has shown slow progress integrating UNDRIP into domestic policy. In fact, upon visiting Canada in 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food articulated explicit concern that Canada has failed to achieve its international obligations to support Indigenous access to food (De Schutter, 2012). From a constitutional standpoint, section 35 of the Canadian Constitution recognizes and affirms existing Aboriginal and treaty rights, and section 15 of the Charter guarantees equality and freedom from discrimination, which applies to Indigenous identities (Kallen, 2010). To the best of my knowledge, there has yet to be case law setting precedent that Indigenous food insecurity—or Canada’s colonial infringement on Inuit food systems—is a violation of Canadian law (see, for instance, Walsh, 2017). However, there has been a political shift in recent months: in December 2020, the Trudeau administration released a proposal for implementing UNDRIP in Canada (Government of Canada, 2020), though the effectiveness of the proposed legislation remains contested. Overall, it is apparent that the legal enforceability of domestic legislation remains weak, despite international obligations to advance Inuit food security based on rights to food, health, and Indigenous self-determination.

Initiatives to Address the Food Insecurity Crisis

In light of these unreached mandates, it is important to analyse existing policies to better understand current shortcomings in addressing Inuit rights to food security, and possibilities for future improvement based on Canada’s unfulfilled obligations to protect Inuit rights to food, health, and self-determination. Federal responses have largely lacked Inuit direction, and are based on narrow conceptualizations of food and health. At the same time, many community-based initiatives have been grounded in Inuit knowledge and leadership but lack funding for sustained implementation.

Nutrition North Canada is the current federal initiative to address Inuit food security. This program aims to increase access to healthy foods by subsidizing costs for perishable food items. Although Nutrition North Canada attempts to improve upon the Federal Food Mail Program (the previous Federal initiative), many scholars have heavily criticized the program’s ineffectiveness. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (2019) lists key shortcomings to the Nutrition North Program: the lack of subsidies for hunting, fishing, and harvesting equipment; the prioritization of “imported, factory-farmed animal protein” over local country food; market-driven priorities that treat foods “as a commodity rather than a basic human right”; giving “arbitrary power” to retailers, with little concern for local residents; and a general lack of transparency (p. 6). These concerns highlight the overemphasis of a western diet, with little concern for access to country food. In fact, because the program focuses on subsidizing ‘nutritious’ food, the price of common nonperishable foods, as well as other essential household items, continues to rise (St-Germain et al., 2019). The Special Rapporteur on the right to food shares specific concern about the implementation of Nutrition North Canada, stating that “the programme is not achieving its desired outcome” (De Schutter, 2012, p. 8). These federal responses highlight the prioritization of market-driven, western-centric, and homogenous approaches to addressing Inuit food insecurity, with little appreciation for location-specific conceptualizations of Inuit food systems.

At the same time, community-level initiatives revolve around Inuit-guided understandings of food and food security, yet often lack funding necessary for the long-term implementation. Fergurson (2011) gives the example of the Healthy Foods North initiative, an initiative in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut that supported local self-sufficiency food projects. However, the federal government discontinued funding in 2010, and the program was forced to close (Fergurson, 2011). Another program in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik offers community-owned freezers (crucial for food preservation in the face of climate change), boats to support harvesting and storage, as well as a knowledge sharing program and a community kitchen that runs cooking programs for children and youth (ITK, 2016). This initiative similarly lacks secure funding, with no information inputted under “funding sources” on the ITK website (ITK, 2016). In general, community-level initiatives display a recognition of specific local needs and a broader conceptualization of food, but lack the finances needed for secure implementation.

Thus, collaboration between the government and Inuit partners appears vital to providing long-term, holistic, and multifaceted responses that address deeper socioeconomic and environmental barriers. Long-term responses require sustainable funding, which can be procured through federal partnership. Holistic initiatives require broad conceptualizations of health and food that resist westernized food systems and promote food sovereignty in Inuit Nunangat. Finally, responses must be multifaceted; promoting education and intergenerational knowledge sharing, mitigating the effects of climate change, and responding to poverty and unemployment are essential to promoting food security. Efforts to simply subsidize food prices fail to acknowledge the complexity of food insecurity and fall short of the multi-level intervention needed.

There are current efforts to actualize such collaboration. In 2019, the Federal Government released a Food Policy for Canada called “Everyone At The Table,” the first national plan to address food insecurity (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2020). This plan was based on the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC)’s report What We Heard. This consultation guide not only mentions the shortcomings of Nutrition North Canada, but additionally documents the objective to establish a government-Inuit partnership with the “co-development and implementation of policies that impact their respective food systems” (AAFC, 2018, p. 31). The National Food Policy Plan in Canada has pledged $15 million to fund initiatives in isolated communities in Northern Canada over the next five years (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2020). However, it remains unclear if this initiative will have the long-term effects required to not only promote, but sustain, food security in Inuit Nunangat. Moving forward, research into the effectiveness of this federal food plan towards promoting Inuit food security will be essential.

Here, it is important to acknowledge resistance to this notion that intervention should include involvement from the Federal government. Coté (2015), for example, argues that any connection to Settler government structures—for example, through Federal funding of programs—is contradictory to processes of food system decolonization. Coté (2015) explains that food system decolonization instead depends on the “revitalizing Indigenous foods systems and practices through the reaffirmation of spiritual, emotional and physical relationships to the lands, waters, plants, and all living things that have sustained Indigenous communities and cultures” (Coté, 2015, p. 58). In this sense, the praxis of decolonizing food systems is contingent on increasing indendance from the colonial governance systems that have instigated the eradication of Indigenous traditions and cultures. However, despite the need for disconnection from State governance to work towards Inuit food system decolonization, efforts to increase collaboration between Inuit and State partners is still vital in the interim. Importantly, the ITK continues to call for intervention that prioritizes both self-determination and collaboration, advocating for “meaningful, equitable and sustainable partnership” between Inuit regions and the Canadian government (ITK, 2017, p. 19). More specifically, the ITK outlines that this partnership depends on “utilizing Inuit governance structures for decision making” and recognizing that “Inuit organizations are best positioned to develop strategies and manage food system programs” (ITK, 2017, p. 17). In addition to prioritizing Inuit self-determination, the ITK expresses value in having “long-term, flexible, multi-year funding transfers to Inuit regional organizations for sustainable food security programming” (ITK, 2017, p. 17). In this sense, Federal funding used at the discretion and direction of Inuit communities can still operate as a stepping stone towards eventual sovereignty from Settler governance, by enabling “Indigenous peoples […] to direct change from within and through action, change, strategies, and policies working toward becoming ‘sustainable’ self-determining nations” (Corntassel, 2008, as cited in Coté, 2015). Consequently, there is still value in including the Canadian government in efforts to promote food security in Inuit Nunangat—yet, crucially, the governments’ role in intervention must exist in a manner that fosters Inuit autonomy.


Blay-Palmer (2016) writes that “a lack of food is a symptom of a lack of power” (p. 1). Indeed, the current food insecurity crisis across Inuit Nunangat reflects the historic and continued disempowerment of Inuit and devaluation of Inuit knowledge. Barriers to food—including institutional discrimination, pressures to westernize food systems, restrictive access to harvesting country foods, and worsening effects of climate change—are reflections of, and exacerbated by, social and economic inequities across Inuit Nunangat. It is also important to acknowledge a limitation of this research paper. Namely, I have often homogenized food insecurity across Inuit Nunangat when experiences of food insecurity, food services, and shipping arrangements, vary across and within communities throughout Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, and the Northwest Territories, negating unique experiences of food insecurity. This essay adopted a human rights lens to reveal Canada’s unfulfilled/unrealized commitments to international mandates protecting rights to food, health, and Indigenous self-determination. It is crucial that, moving forward, Canada works to increase the enforceability of food security in domestic legislation, in addition to increasing partnership between the government and Inuit communities to more appropriately respond to food needs in Inuit Nunangat, keeping in mind the need for Inuit agency over their own food systems without chronic reliance on the Canadian State. The Canada Food Plan offers potential for achieving these objectives, but investigating the efficacy of the program is of utmost concern to advance actions that protect and promote Inuit rights to food, health, and self-determination.


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