Geographically, historically, and culturally, Iceland is unique. Nevertheless, this island country located just below the Arctic Circle has many lessons to offer in Northern food security, striving for balance between self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Not surprisingly, in the government’s own words, “the fishing industry is one of the main pillars of the Icelandic economy.” A responsible, sustainable fishery is official policy, and includes a structured fisheries management system, including catch limits and ongoing stock assessments.
Arable land is limited in Iceland (less than 1 per cent). The island’s volcanic soils are thin and much of the interior is covered by lava fields, mountains, and glaciers. But while only a tiny fraction of the land is therefore under cultivation, a preference for and tradition of locally-obtained food means the produce from farms (which are generally small and family-run) finds a ready market. Not only are there hearty vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots, kale, cabbage, and rhubarb, but thanks to an abundance of geothermal energy, a cornucopia of greenhouse crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers – and even bananas. Although less than 10 percent of Icelandic farms are certified organic, most conventional farms do not use pesticides either, since there are few crop-devouring insects to contend with on the island.
Iceland’s main agricultural activity is sheep ranching, with island sheep far outnumbering human inhabitants. Government regulations mandate that the sheep spend their summers outdoors, requiring them to be freely grazing for a minimum of two months. Dairy farming also flourishes, thanks in part to strict breeding regulations that serve to keep the 1,000-year-old Icelandic cow breed free of disease. More importantly, a farmer-owned co-operative – MS Dairies – collects 98 per cent of the milk produced in the country, and helps to ensure sustainable prices for the dairy farmers. The co-op is also fostering an export industry for Skyr, Iceland’s unique yogurt-like dairy product.
A relative newcomer to the food scene is foraging, brought about in part by Iceland’s recent financial crisis, but also spurred by a growing interest in natural foods. There are two types of foraging activities in Iceland – land and seaside. Surrounded by pristine waters, the island’s beaches are a bounty of edible offerings, including mussels, clams, seagull eggs (which many consider superior to chicken eggs), and also kelp and seaweed. Moving inland, the best time for foraging plants in Iceland is during the short summer, basically late May to late July, when berries (blueberries and crowberries are common) and wild herbs abound. But the most popular foraged food is mushrooms. It is estimated Iceland has over 100 varieties of edible fungi.
In fact, foraging in Iceland has not only become common, but trendy too, popularized in part by a new generation of local chefs who feature wild, local ingredients. Iceland’s foremost restaurant, Dill, (its first and only Michelin-starred eatery), highlights foraged offerings, several of them actually obtained within the city limits of the capital Reykjavik itself. Looking to the future, the government is moving to set aside wilderness areas specifically for foraging.
Admittedly, Iceland’s current focus on sustainability was borne from hard lessons. At the time of the Viking settlement (1150 years ago), around a third of the island was covered with trees. Human expansion resulted in rampant deforestation, and sheep grazing inhibited regeneration. Over 95 per cent of the original forest cover is gone, so, not surprisingly, today Icelanders are careful to maintain an ecological balance, with tight government regulations and policies on land use and agricultural practices, as well as sustainable fishing.
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.
As part of the Dawson Youth Fiddlers entourage, I have just returned from Vadzaih Choo Drin, Caribou Days, in Old Crow, Yukon – four days of celebrating the Spring migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd en route to their Northern calving grounds and feasting on food from the land!
Caribou Days is a wonderful four day celebration of feasts, games and music, with jigging and dancing that continue to the wee hours of the morning. Everyone takes part, young and old, men and women. One of the Dawson contingent coined a new slogan for Old Crow: “Old Crow – where men dance!”
Much of the feasting celebrates food from the land. The caribou, vadzaih, features front and centre, but also rabbit, muskrat, whitefish, salmon, duck and beaver. For me, it was my first taste of muskrat! (Although I took my tub of Dawson local food with me, I also treated myself to some tastes of local Old Crow food while I was in Old Crow!)
There is a wonderful synergism to the games and feasting at Caribou Days. The log sawing competition and the kindling competition help keep the outdoor fire going for the huge grill that cooks the food from the land. The rabbit skinning contest and the muskrat skinning contest are perfectly timed before the meat hits the grill!
Muskrat meat ready for the grill, and fur ready for use. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Muskrat tails on the grill. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Beaver was also on the menu. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Prepared caribou heads ready to go in the pot. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Whitefish being cleaned for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Vuntut Gwitchin citizen, Stan Njootli Sr. demonstrates how to skin a muskrat. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Crow River ice after break-up. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The outdoor grill being prepared for the Caribou Days feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Almost ready. Checking on the caribou. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Food from the land ready for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The caribou are vitally important to the Vuntut Gwitchin who have relied on the caribou for tens of thousands of years for food and for clothing. All parts of the harvested caribou continue to be used from the head to the hoof to the hide. The Vuntut Gwitchin and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, with the support of many Canadians and Americans, continue to fight for the protection of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving grounds, wintering grounds and migration routes from oil and gas exploration.
Massi Cho Old Crow for welcoming the Dawson Youth Fiddlers so warmly to Caribou Days with amazing Old Crow hospitality. We had a fantastic time!
> Read more about the Porcupine Caribou Herd
Finding nutrient-rich soil in the far North can be tricky, but as Old Crow demonstrates, it’s not impossible.
Old Crow, home to the Vuntut Gwitchin, is the most northerly community in the Yukon, located 128 km (80 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.
A fly-in community of approximately 300 people, Old Crow rests at the confluence of Crow River and the Porcupine River. Vuntut Gwitchin means “People of the Lakes”, named after the many lakes at Crow Flats, the second largest wetland in North America, and the main hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering area for the Vuntut Gwitchin.
With no road access, grocery store prices in Old Crow are very high.
Old Crow has seen detrimental effects from climate change over the past decades. The permafrost is melting. Water levels and subsequently salmon stocks are declining. Lakes are drying up.
In adapting to climate change, more folks in Old Crow are growing vegetable gardens.
One couple, in the 1990’s, planted their vegetable garden about two miles upriver from Old Crow on the banks of the Porcupine River, about 50 feet back from the edge of the riverbank, in front of a drained out lake. The soil must have been nutrient rich as the garden produced an abundant crop of carrots and giant cabbages that Old Crow resident, Mary Jane Moses, still remembers well.
Take 26 minutes to watch “Our Changing Homelands, Our Changing Lives” to hear from Vuntut Gwitchin about climate change and food security in Old Crow
To learn more about Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation check out www.oldcrow.ca
And don’t forget to check out the Old Crow Recipe Page for delicious caribou, muskrat, rabbit, duck, ptarmigan and whitefish egg recipes!
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
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.
An innovative project led by the Inuvik Community Greenhouse Society is helping small, isolated Arctic communities, where access to fresh produce is scare, set up their own greenhouses and start raising fresh food. In June, community greenhouse coordinators from Aklavik, Fort MacPherson, Paulatuk, Sach’s Harbour, Tsiigehtchic, Tuktoyaktukc and Uluhakaktok attended a week-long internship program in Inuvik.
The program covered everything from soil preparation through weeding, trellising, pruning, and soil care to harvesting and worm composting. The interns worked in the greenhouse and in outdoor gardens around the community, even receiving instruction in raising chickens.
At the end of the course, each coordinator delivered a 30-minute workshop to prepare them for giving workshops in their own communities. The coordinator from Aklavik focused on engaging young people in the greenhouse, since it has been shown that when youth participate in community greenhouses, vandalism decreases significantly.
Emily Mann, coordinator of the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, said that being gathered in once place allowed community coordinators to learn from each other and to establish a network for troubleshooting and sharing knowledge—the coordinators have since set up a Facebook page.
The interns are now busy in their own communities, reaching out, teaching workshops and bringing local people in to garden together. In Aklavik recently, local children made hanging flower baskets for the Elder’s home. Every Elder received one. As Mann said, flowers are important for pollination, but they help to build community too.
To see Emily Mann’s presentation on the internship project, watch the Northern Food Network’s Webinar # 3
Join the Northern Food Network for its third FREE webinar. This installment is on Growing Food and Community in the Northwest Territories. It takes place Monday 19 June from 10-11:30 a.m. PST (1-2:30 EST). The webinar will feature presentations by:
Located 200 km north of the Arctic Circle in the Mackenzie Delta, Inuvik is at the end of the Dempster Highway that runs from Dawson City. It is also home to the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, which bills itself as North America’s most northerly greenhouse.
The project has come a long way since its germination almost twenty years ago. Today it has grown to a marvelous maturity, and according to the Community Garden Society of Inuvik (CGSI), which runs the facility, it is the only Community Greenhouse of its kind in the world.
CGSI is a not-for-profit organization formed in November of 1998. With the help and support of Aurora College, they began by converting a decommissioned building (the former Grollier Hall Arena), into a community greenhouse as a focal point for community development. The objective was to utilize the space to allow for the production of a variety of crops in an area where fresh, economical produce is often unavailable. Based upon the success to date, they believe the Inuvik Community Greenhouse can serve as an effective model for other northern communities.
The greenhouse consists of two major areas: raised community garden plots on the main floor and a commercial greenhouse on the second floor. Garden plots are available to residents of Inuvik, and are also sponsored for elders, group homes, children’s groups, the mentally disabled, and other local charities. A 4000 square foot commercial greenhouse produces bedding plants and hydroponic vegetables to cover operation and management costs.
Today, the greenhouse holds 174 full-size plots. Each full plot is approximately 8 ft. by 4 ft. The rental fee per full plot is $50 per plot. Each member pays a $25 membership fee per year and completes 15 volunteer hours. The greenhouse is naturally heated through the summer by the 24 hour sunlight. The typical greenhouse season lasts from late May to the end of September.
Members are able to grow anything they like, and with the 24hour sunlight, anything is possible! Greens such as spinach, chard, and lettuce grow very well, and many members get multiple crops each year. Tomatoes, carrots, peas, herbs, strawberries, rhubarb, zucchini, and squash are among the common crops. Flowers abound, and rarer crops include flax, cucumbers, raspberries, Asian greens, roses, kohlrabi, and watermelons!
Know of an innovative northern greenhouse project?
Another great pemmican recipe!
This “Traditional Raspberry Pemmican” recipe comes from the show and blog “Wild Kitchen”. Wild Kitchen is a project based in the Canadian sub-arctic about people who harvest wild food. 100% of the cast and crew are from the Northwest Territories and they work with what is available on the land to prepare nutritious recipes with a distinct wild flavor.
You can watch Wild Kitchen episodes here and on their website you can find their awesome recipes.
Suzanne is looking for ways to keep her ever-hungry 17-year-old son, Sam, full next year. Sam suggested that pemmican might be a reasonable locally-sourced snack food that will help him get through the year, especially since he spends lots of time doing physical activity. After all, Canada was practically built on pemmican. Trading posts would seek this high-protein and high-energy food from the natives, and it was used to sustain the voyageurs, especially in winter, as they traveled long distances.
Mary Jane Moses of Old Crow shared some of her ch’itsuh (pemmican) with Suzanne. Click here for a couple of classic pemmican recipes:
Have a recipe for pemmican for Suzanne to try? Please share here.
In a beautiful article by Up Here Magazine, France Benoit opens the gate to her home and farm “Le Refuge“, which she has lovingly built and tended to for the past 25 years. On this property, by the shores of Madeline Lake in Yellowknife, France grows a variety of vegetables to feed herself as well as to sell in the local farmer’s market, of which she is a founding member.
France has been kind enough to share many growing and homesteading tips with Suzanne, which we have featured on FWE, and her creative and smart solutions for northern greenhouses keep us inspired.
The Caribou cookbook has arrived! Learn how to use all parts of the caribou. Traditional recipes such as ch’itsuh (pemmican), head cheese, and Caribou Bone Broth combined with new recipes such as Caribou Wonton Soup and Mushroom and Caribou Brain Ravioli.
Continue reading “Vadzaih: Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof”
On April 21 and 22 Vuntut Gwich’in citizens, conservationists, scientists, members of the public and families got together to celebrate the Porcupine Caribou Herd with two days of presentations, films, panel discussions, kids’ activities, and caribou tastings at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse. The event was hosted by Yukon Conservation Society (YCS), Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation (VGFN) and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), all of whom have a keen interest in the health of the herd.
There was lots to celebrate. The herd is robust and growing in size. The relationship between northern indigenous peoples and the caribou that sustains them is respectful and strong. Harvest management strategies and hunter education programs are helping to ensure the herd continues to thrive.
But there’s bad news, too. Of 15 barren ground caribou herds the Porcupine herd is one of only two that are known to be increasing. The others have decreased alarmingly in recent years. Barren ground caribou have been listed as threatened in Canada. And the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are once again under threat from oil and gas exploration. VGFN and their First Nations and Inuvialuit neighbours, conservationists, scientists and concerned citizens are working together to ensure protection of the herd, and Porcupine Caribou: Celebrate and learn about the herd was part of that effort.
To watch the proceedings from the Porcupine Herd celebration event, visit yukonconservation.org.
The CBC morning radio show “A New Day” hosted by Sandi Coleman on CBC Yukon, has started a new regular column called “Yu-kon Grow It”, which will air every other Wednesday morning between 7 and 7:30 am. On this segment, Sandi will check in with Suzanne about her “First we Eat: Food Security North of 60” project, as well as featuring other Yukoners involved in local food issues such as Miche Genest and other guests.
Sandi Coleman will next check in with Suzanne on Wednesday March 8th, between 7.00 and 7.30 am on CBC Radio Yukon.
Don’t forget to tune in!
You can listen to the first interview with Suzanne and Elyn Jones here,
If you are interested in issues of Northern Food Security, consider signing up for webinars with the Northern Food Network.
Their First Webinar is taking place Monday, Feb 27 from 10-11 am. It will feature Dexter MacRae & Darren Bullen, from Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm and Shirley Tagalik and team, from Arviat Wellness and Arviat Greenhouse.
The Northern Food Network (NFN) is co-hosted by the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research (AICBR) and Food Secure Canada (FSC) as a space for people working in and interested in northern food security to share, learn about best practices across the North and advance collective action on food security.Sign up here for this great opportunity.