Seal Meat an Integral Part of Traditional Inuit Lifestyle

For many Inuit communities in the far North, especially fly-in communities not connected to the outside world by roads, food security is an ongoing concern.

While a number of new initiatives have been undertaken in recent years, including Nuluaq, The Inuit Community-Based Food Initiatives Mapping Project, one of the solutions is as old as the Inuit themselves — a return to country foods such as seal, walrus, whale, and fish harvested from the local environment.

Game meats are high in protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Seal meat is especially lean with less than two per cent fat (compared to 12 to 27 per cent fat in other store-bought meats). It’s also rich in iron, zinc, vitamins A, D, B and C, and Omega 3 fatty acids. Through initiatives like community kitchens and cooking classes, hunter coops, and communal freezers, efforts are being made to help far Northern communities expand local access to country foods. Southerners are discovering seal meat too, and some chefs, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, are bravely adding the dish to their menus, including Chef Eric Pateman’s Edible Canada in Vancouver, and chef Joseph Shawana’s Toronto restaurant, Kū-Kŭm Kitchen.

The move can be a controversial one, because the harvesting of seals continues to be a touchy topic for some animal rights activists. For several decades opposition to seal products by global animal rights groups has impacted the ability of Inuit communities to sell their seal products. Seal skin products used for waterproof, biodegradable clothing such as boots, mittens and hats, have long been a vital source of cash to purchase items such as the boats/snowmobiles, gasoline, and ammunition used by hunters.

The Inuit are fighting to change public opinion. Most notably, Iqaluit film maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, director of the documentary Angry Inuk, has started to alter outisder perceptions. The Canadian government is also trying to get the message across that the harvest is humane and sustainable.  But for many northern Canadians it’s much more basic. They simply consider seal comfort food.

Nunavut’s The Laughing Chef Promotes Local Food in the North

Rebecca Veevee, Nunavut’s The Laughing Chef. Photo by permission, Rebecca Veevee

Inuk chef and cooking show host Ooleepeeka (Rebecca) Veevee, The Laughing Chef, is a familiar and beloved face in Nunavut.   Armed with her ulu, her infectious smile and her sense of humour, Ooleepeeka is the driving force behind the Inuit Broadcasting Company’s popular TV show “Niqitsiat” (which means “Good Food Ideas”) – a cooking show that profiles Northern dishes made with traditional Inuit food from the land or “country food”.

Caribou pizza, goose soup, char casserole, seal pie, beluga muktuk stir-fry are just some of the dishes that Ooleepeeka Veevee cooks up on her show.  Ooleepeeka often brings guests on her show including NHL hockey star Jordin Tootoo (first Inuk to play in the NHL). No one is too famous to learn from Ooleepeeka!

In 2015 Ooleepeeka Veevee received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Award for her work promoting traditional Inuit foods. In awarding her the honour, the government cited how her TV program has been recognized for combating a growing epidemic of diseases related to poor nutrition in northern communities.

Ooleepeeka has shared her variation of a Traditional Seal Meat Recipe (link) with First We Eat.

“Niqitsiat” has been broadcast in Inuktitut on the Inuit Broadcasting Company since 2009 and can be viewed on APTN . Check out an episode of Niqitsiat, Ooleepeeka Veevee teaching how to cook BBQ arctic char and caribou head.

> Click here for Ooleepeeka Veevee’s Traditional Seal Meat Recipe

Seal Hunt is Foundation of Traditional Lifestyle

Angry Inuk by Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril  documents the economic, social, and cultural devastation caused by decades of anti-sealing activism.

For the Inuit communities of Nunavut, seal meat has been a staple in their local diets for millennia. The meat is a vital source of fat, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and iron. Seal pelts are also prized for their warmth, and since first contact with Europeans, trade in seal products has played an important role in the regional economy. This revenue is especially crucial in remote areas where many foodstuffs need to be imported, and transportation costs are high.

A commercial seal hunt in Southern Canada, most notably the annual spring hunt in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, has generated controversy in recent decades, led by high-profile animal-rights activists, and resulting in a 2006 call by the European Union for a ban on all harp seal and hooded seal products. The traditional Inuit seal hunt has been swept up in an animal rights activism fervor, adversely affecting an age-old way of life.

But now indigenous groups are standing up for their heritage and defending their traditional lifestyles. Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has released Angry Inuk, a feature-length documentary that defends the Inuit seal hunt. In Toronto, Indigenous chef Joseph Shawana is keeping seal meat on the menu at his Ku-Kum Kitchen restaurant, despite a petition calling for its removal, and is galvanizing a groundswell of public support of his own.

Partially shot in the filmmaker’s home community of Iqaluit, as well as Kimmirut and Pangnirtung, where seal hunting is seen as essential for survival, Angry Inuk also follows an Inuit delegation to Europe in an effort to have the EU Ban on Seal Products overturned. The film criticizes NGOs such as Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare for championing animal rights while ignoring the needs of vulnerable northern communities who depend on the hunt for their livelihoods.

Chef Shawana, whose restaurant specializes in indigenous-themed dishes, says he researched the Northern hunt before opting to serve seal meat. He points out the Inuit seal harvest is very sustainable and humane, and contrasts it with the roughly two million cows, 20 million pigs, and 550 million chickens killed each year in Canada alone during large-scale food production. But at the root of the issue, says Shawana, is the need to acknowledge and support Canada’s aboriginal cultures.

Seal tartare is just one of many indigenous-themed dishes served at Ku-Kum Kitchen by owner/chef Joseph Shawana.

Local Fertilizer in Arviat, Nunavut


When you live in a fly-in community in the North, shipping by plane can be very expensive, especially for heavy items such as soil and fertilizer.

The people behind the community greenhouse  in Arviat, Nunavut, have taken on the very important issue of food security by devising a strategy to grow their own produce.

And one of the biggest obstacles they have found is that the local soil lacks nutrients. Commercial soil works fine, but it is costly and it needs to be flown in, which impacts the sustainability of the project.

Arviat's Greenhouse, Photo by Arviat Goes Green
Arviat’s Greenhouse, Photo by Arviat Goes Green

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Arviat Goes Green

Many northern Canadian communities do not have the luxury of the rich soil found in southern Yukon.  This is the case for the fly-in community of Arviat, (population 2,800) – the second largest community in  Nunavut.

Arviat Map, Nunavut, Canada
Arviat Map, Nunavut, Canada

In 2014 Arviat built a greenhouse beside the school to see if they could grow their own vegetables with local soil and local fertilizer. And they have been very successful!

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