In remote communities like Grise Fiord or Kugluktuk, the supply-chain woes are nothing new — but climate change is making them harder


Right now the rest of Canada is moaning about out-of-stock Christmas gifts, shipping delays and higher pricetags. Yet there’s a part of the country where these problems are a frustrating fact of life — and they’re hoping climate change doesn’t make things even worse.

“Every community (up here) is the same, just we’ve got that extra leg,” says Allan Hawkes, whose job is to keep the largest of two stores in Canada’s most northerly community — Grise Fiord, Nunavut — stocked for local shoppers. He has been waiting for a planeload of fresh produce that was dropped off on a Wednesday in Resolute and still hadn’t arrived in Grise Fiord when we speak eight days later. Weeks of unseasonably high winds cancelled almost all the flights between the two hamlets. “If mother nature doesn’t co-operate” says Hawkes, “there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.”

When shipments do arrive, everything costs Hawkes and his customers nine dollars a pound in shipping. A three-pound package of breaded chicken — which is not subsidized by the Nutrition North Canada program who cover a portion of the shipping costs of essential and healthier items like fresh milk and frozen vegetables — would cost $27 in shipping, before factoring in the cost of the chicken itself.

Local guide Terry Noah often has to make difficult choices for his family at the co-op checkout when he finds he doesn’t have enough to cover all of the items he is trying to buy. “You have to choose what to put back and what you actually need,” he says.

Northern communities have learned to live with the high costs and low access of remote living, but climate change threatens to make both worse as warmer winters jeopardize the primary transport routes for people, goods, and wildlife.

While Grise Fiord and other communities in the Arctic Archipelago rely on once-a-year Sealift shipments to bring in most of their large purchases — including building materials, snowmobiles and non-perishable supplies for the year — the problem of supplying remote areas is a larger one. More than 30 First Nations communities, in Northern Ontario alone, rely on a network of temporary winter roads to bring in key supplies for six to 12 weeks per year, depending on weather.

“The winter road is a lifeline,” says Peter Nanokeesic of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation, a fly-in community about 580 km north of Thunder Bay. As operations, maintenance, and public works manager, he oversees the annual construction and maintenance of the portion of road they are responsible for, a 122-km stretch connecting KI to neighbouring Kingfisher First Nation.

Warmer winters and fewer “freezing degree days” (a key metric for the stability of winter roads) means these crucial arteries are opening later and closing earlier, shortening the critical window to bring in a years’ worth of supplies such as building materials and the heavy loads of fuel that will keep the lights and heat on through the winter. Anything that can’t be hauled over the frozen muskeg, eskers, rivers and lakes by truck must be flown in at two or even three times the cost.

“It’s like a roller-coaster,” says Nanokeesic of the uncertainty each year as he and his and his fleet of groomers, loaders, graders, bulldozers and jet pumps work to achieve the road thickness (36-38 inches) required to support fully loaded transport trucks. Nanokeesic recalls a series of bad winters several years ago when they couldn’t haul anything in by truck. Last year after a slow start, they were able to get the roads in place, but because nature didn’t give them the ice they needed, they were only able to haul half loads, which cost the same as full ones. “That’s money that we don’t have,” says KI Chief Donny Morris, who was worried to see ice just beginning to form in early December this year. “A late start means we’re not guaranteed a winter road.”

Frank McKay is chair of the Windigo First Nations Council, which represents seven First Nations in Ontario’s far north. No longer able to rely on the winter roads to bring critical supplies into their communities, the council is planning to replace them with permanent infrastructure.

Investment in an all-season road network, though it would be partially funded by the federal government, comes at a huge cost to First Nations communities. Year-round access would lift restrictions on supplies and let communities get what they need but would compromise the very remoteness that has kept them sheltered from outside development, mining exploration, and other interests that could deteriorate the traditional territory they depend on.

“It’s a mixed opportunity,” says McKay.

As we in the south are urged to “shop local,” climate change is threatening the only truly local supply chain in the north: Harvesting fresh game meats, migratory birds, and fish from the land. “Country food,” as it’s called, is the staple of the Inuit diet and culture.

“Almost December and we still have some open water way up here! The place that never melts ‘Ausuittuq’ I guess it can’t melt if it doesn’t freeze.” So posts Terry Noah on Facebook, alongside photos of open water in Jones Sound across the front of Grise Fiord (whose Inuit name he cites).

Noah and other subsistence hunters in the hamlet are watching for the sea ice to turn from dark blue to a brighter white, a sign it is thick enough for them to reach the populations of larger animals like musk ox and caribou that will see the community through the long dark season (at 76 degrees latitude, the sun sets on the last day in October and doesn’t rise again until February). When the darkness comes before the ice, as it has in recent years, that forces hunters out in search of animals that are barely visible in the pitch black or to travel hundreds of kilometres through the polar night in -40 or -50 C weather — all to find a couple of caribou that once shared between each of the hamlet’s 48 households will provide just a few meals for each.

“Usually by now, I would have meat in the freezer,” says Noah, who also ships reasonably priced country foods like White Beluga Maktaaq (skin and blubber) and Tuktu Nikku (dried caribou) across Nunavut to families who aren’t able to hunt, or who can’t afford the equipment. “But I haven’t been able to do that yet because we still can’t go out.”

Further west, on the banks of the Coppermine River in Kugluktuk, later freeze-ups are not just delaying access to hunting grounds but altering the migration patterns of the caribou herds and Arctic char that provide fresh, nutrient-rich food for the community.

Amanda Dumond, manager of the Kugluktuk Hunters and Trappers Association says that each year local hunters are having to wait longer to get out on the ice and travel farther, as key migratory species are also changing their movement patterns because of unsafe ice conditions. Dumond worries about the Dolphin and Union caribou herd which can’t return from its calving grounds on Victoria Island to the mainland, where her community can access them for food.

Dumond is participating in a tagging program to monitor whether the Arctic char who typically overwinter in the Coppermine River are declining or if they have moved elsewhere in search of colder waters. As always, the community is adapting to the changing Arctic environment — looking for alternative meats like muskox and moose, travelling farther to find caribou, eating white fish instead of char, even going out hunting in the dark, cold winter days.

“People will do it because they need the country food,” says Dumond, adding that her family is supplementing more with store-bought meat, though it makes her feel more tired and doesn’t keep her full as long.

“I am actually quite worried, because if it continues, it can really affect our way of life,” says Dumond, who also helps run a country-food program where local hunters distribute fresh meat to the community. “What’s it going to be like for my son in 10, 15 years?”

Emily Waugh is a freelance writer in Toronto.

Grise Fiord facts of life

In 1953, when a handful of Inuit families were forced by the Canadian government to relocate from the subarctic shores of Hudson’s Bay in Inukjuak, Que., to establish a settlement the high Arctic at Grise Fiord, they were without the critical supplies they relied on for survival — there were no familiar game, birds or shellfish to hunt, there were no trees to supply firewood they had always used for cooking and heating, And, in the unfamiliar dry polar desert, not a sufficient amount or type of snow build igloos, instead freezing through the first dark winters in summer tents.

Those adjustments have been made, but there are still financial barriers: Heavier household items like a $160 upright vacuum cleaner would cost another $180 to ship. That same vacuum, purchased from an online retailer like Amazon who honours free shipping for Prime customers in Iqaluit, but charges $12-$14 a pound for more remote locations, could cost $400 total ($280 in shipping alone).

TikToker Kyra Flaherty uses the medium to broadcast high prices and resulting food insecurity from her local Northmart in Iqaluit — cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup for $7.69, and nearly $70.00 for a 200-metre roll of aluminum foil, $14 for pint of strawberries, dog food for her Grise Fiord edition shows boxes of premium plus crackers for $17.99, a jar of Golden acres honey for $29.99 and a three-pack of mixed bell peppers for $9.99.





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