$105 for a case of water, $28 for a head of cabbage, and $47 for a box of laundry detergent; sounds like a 17th century story of famine, right? But these prices are a reality for those living in the northern Canadian territory Nunavut, a remote area with a population of around 30,000 Inuit.
Our story starts with the historical and current lack of an agricultural industry in the area due, in part, to the extreme weather conditions. With the introduction of Europeans, the traditional system of hunting, fishing, and gathering has dwindled, leaving the inhabitants completely reliant on store bought and imported goods.
The only way to get this food from the south to the north is by air, a process eleven times more expensive than delivering food to other areas of the country (the cost of sending a shipment to southern Nunavut is around $1.27 per pound, and to the northern part it is typically $3.65 per pound).
This combined with storage issues and the problem of keeping food fresh — five to six times more food is lost on transit to the north than to the south — the price of the whole operation sky rockets alarmingly fast. And, with a minimum wage of $11 — the highest in the country — clashing with high living costs and a 16% unemployment rate, the situation for the locals has deteriorated steadily, leaving many hungry and searching for solutions.
The Canadian government, in an attempt to do their part in aiding the hungry families, has created the Nutrition North Canada (NNC) program, subsidizing northern food suppliers with $53.9 million per year to help lower the price of nutritious foods. The government determines which foods and communities are eligible to receive subsidies, and the rates vary from community to community — with some receiving full relief, and others receiving partial relief.
While the NNC is doing its part to make nutritious food more accessible to the people, the prices of shipping supplies to the north are still astronomically high. The program was not designed to address the factors that created the problem in the first place, and the fact that the program’s not looking to make the prices of food in the north equal to the prices in other parts of the country cannot be ignored.
It is at this point that Jennifer Gwilliam comes into the picture. Originally from the United States, Gwilliam currently lives in Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island. She’s always been involved in various humanitarian causes, so when she heard about the prices her northern neighbors were paying for basic necessities of life, she made the decision to get involved.
A pre-existing Facebook group, Feeding My Family, was already generating awareness and outrage for the situation, but Gwilliam wanted to turn the outrage felt around the country into action. So, she started a Facebook group of her own: Helping Our Northern Neighbors.
The purpose of Helping Our Northern Neighbors is to match willing donors of food and other goods with families in the north who are in need of the supplies. The amount donated can range from one box to a “sponsor” setup, where the donors regularly send care packages.
Already, just six months into the program, Gwilliam has 400 names on the list of people who need help, and just under half of them have received aid in some way. For the donors, keeping their own families going can be a tiresome and grueling process, but many have managed to contribute in one way or another.
Long-term solutions for the price crisis in the north are, as of now, unknown. Permanent industrial changes and implementing some sort of agricultural system are possibilities, but for now the focus is being set on relieving those who are in danger of starvation.
With the contribution of the donors and her own relentless efforts, Jennifer Gwilliam is providing this much needed aid to the people of Nunavut, and she has already touched countless lives. The end of this crisis is impossible to see, but the relief Gwilliam has provided gives reassurance that the north will not stand alone this winter.