Reflecting on the role of peer researchers in collaborative Indigenous food security research in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Canada

Tiff'Annie Kenny, Sonia D. Wesche and Jullian MacLean


Many Indigenous Peoples in Canada are faced with inadequate access to nutritious, culturally preferred foods, such that rates of food insecurity are significantly higher than for the non-Indigenous population. This is particularly true for Inuit, one of three constitutionally recognised Indigenous groups in Canada, the majority of whom live in the sparsely populated Arctic region, where food insecurity is a serious public health issue exacerbated by ongoing changes in social-ecological systems (Council of Canadian Academies 2014). While wild-harvested ‘country food’ remains fundamental to health and well-being across the Arctic, market foods make up the majority of most contemporary diets. Small, remote Arctic communities are generally serviced by one or two food retailers, providing limited choice to consumers. Tlie high cost of market foods combined with low average incomes in most Arctic communities restricts the affordability of nutritious market foods.

In recognition of such challenges in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in Arctic Canada, we worked collaboratively with the regional Inuit governance organisation and five peer researchers to conduct a participatory food costing project. The aim was to understand the affordability of healthy diets. The participatory, peer research process was designed to include people with experiential knowledge and contextual understanding of food security, address knowledge gaps that matter to them, and give voice to those impacted by food insecurity, with the aim of influencing regional decision making.

Written from the perspectives of the university-based researchers (Tiff-Annie and Sonia) and a representative of the regional Inuit governance organisation (Jullian), the purpose of this chapter is to describe the evolution of multi-level research relationships among these research partners and community-based peer researchers. This chapter presents learnings and findings from our process of engaging Inuit peer researchers in collaborative food security research in a remote community context.


Inuit food systems

As with Indigenous Peoples globally, Inuit food systems are multifaceted and dynamic, directly linked to and informed by place and culture (Kuhnlein et al. 2009; Harder and Wenzel 2012). While the impacts of colonialism and globalisation have precipitated a dietary transition towards increased reliance on market (i.e. store-bought) food (Kenny et al. 2018b), country food (i.e. locally harvested aquatic, terrestrial and avian wildlife and plants) contributes in numerous ways to Inuit health and well-being, and is central to Inuit identity (Condon et al. 1995).

The majority of Inuit in Canada live in 53 communities spanning four Arctic regions, which collectively make up Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland. Each region is co-managed by Inuit and federal, provincial or territorial governments, resulting from constitutionally recognised land claim agreements. These agreements affirm and delineate extensive rights, such that Inuit hold significant decision-making roles and responsibilities related to their homelands. Advances towards devolutionary Indigenous self-government models are also being made in the Arctic, to bring decision making and the delivery of programs and services closer to Inuit values and priorities.

Most Inuit communities are small and remote, the majority being only accessible by sea during the summer season and year-round by air. Retailers operating in these remote environments experience numerous logistical challenges in transporting and storing market foods and other essential items (e.g. heating fuel, construction material). As a result, market food prices in Arctic Canada are significantly higher than elsewhere in the country. Yet household incomes among Inuit in Inuit Nunangat are dramatically lower than for non-Indigenous households in the region (approximately CAD $70,000/year disparity) (ITK 2018a). This renders access to nutritious market foods challenging for many and is particularly problematic among those who lack access to country foods.

High food prices persist in the Arctic despite the existence of a federally administered food subsidy programme, Nutrition North Canada - a market-based mechanism intended to offset high food transportation costs for remote northern communities. Limited independent research exists regarding the effectiveness, administration and acceptability of the programme. More fundamentally, the active and meaningful participation of Inuit in the design and implementation of the subsidy has been limited (de Schutter 2012). The Inuit-Specific Approach for the Canadian Food Policy (ITK 2017) underscores the fact that current federal funding structures that are purported to support food security often act conversely to remove power from Inuit. It also highlights the importance of Inuit self-determination by ensuring that relevant research and decision making flows through and from Inuit governance structures.

Community leadership and control of research with Inuit

Food insecurity, like other social and health inequities among Inuit, derives from colonisation, systemic disempowerment, institutionalised discrimination and other enduring disparities in power, voice and participation in socio-economic, environmental, political and governance systems in Canada (Adelson 2005). Research involving Inuit communities is steeped in the historical and enduring context of abuse, misrepresentation and exploitation, whereby researchers benefit disproportionately from research partnerships (Brunger and Wall 2016). Supporting food security and food sovereignty for Inuit requires multifaceted approaches that address the multiple dimensions of the food system, while affirming Inuit self-determination and governance in research, and supporting community research capacity (ITK 2018b). As outlined in the National Inuit Strategy on Research (ITK 2018b), research in Inuit Nunangat must respect Inuit self-determination in collecting, verifying, analysing and disseminating Inuit-specific data and information. Thus, researchers must work to develop meaningful collaboration through careful, enduring relationship-building and reflection that affirms Inuit governance, partnership and participation in all aspects of the research (Brunger and Wall 2016).

Inuvialuit food security research program

This research is set in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, the westernmost Inuit land claim settlement area in the Canadian Arctic. The region is governed by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC), established at the signing of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement in 1984- The IRC has a governance mandate to improve the economic, social and cultural well-being of Inuvialuit beneficiaries. The region is geographically remote and sparsely populated. Sixty percent of the total population (5,335) reside in the town of Inuvik, the administrative centre for the western Arctic; the rest live in five smaller, predominantly Inuvialuit communities (Statistics Canada 2016a, b). Almost half (46%) of Inuvialuit households in the region experience either moderate or severe food insecurity (Egeland 2010).

Our research programme was initiated in response to the results of a comprehensive cross-sectional study on the health and living conditions of Inuit adults across the Canadian North, emphasising concerns related to diet quality, food security, chronic disease and exposure to environmental contaminants in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Egeland 2010). An initial collaborative research process involving the IRC aimed to enhance evidence-based, community-directed decision making around the allocation of resources and programming at regional and local levels (Fillion et al. 2014). From this evolved a number of research projects focused on diverse aspects of food security in the region, involving primary collection of data and analyses of epidemiological data from the Inuit Health Survey. Research activities have acted to reinforce existing relationships between Jullian (who at the time of the research was the Regional

Dietitian, Inuvialuit Settlement Region) at the IRC, and local peer researchers in five remote communities, which led to the initiation of a participatory food costing project.

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