Affording Labrador

Before wrapping up a phone interview, Samantha Saksagiak wants to mention one last thing.

“During this call, I’ve been drinking a plastic bottle of water, and it cost $3 for a case of 12 here,” she says. “But back home right now in the Northern Store, it costs over $7 for one single bottle of water.”

Saksagiak is one of the lucky ones.

She buckled down, studied hard and graduated from Jens Haven Memorial School in Nain earlier this year with flying colours. She’s now at Memorial University in St. John’s, doing a law and society program in anticipation of going to law school.

And while she knows there’s currently no future for her in her hometown, she’s made it a mission to highlight what it means to be Inuk living in the northermost community in Labrador.

“I was in Whitehorse in the Yukon a few months ago and I was telling the hairdresser where I was getting my hair done where I was from. And she was, like, ‘Do you have a hair salon there?’ and I was, like, ‘No, we don’t.’ ‘Do you have a clothing store there?’ ‘No we don’t.’ So, she was asking all these questions, and she said, ‘Why would you want to live there?’ It was so shocking to her that people actually live there in those conditions,” she said.

“I explained to her that’s home for some people. They have homes there, they have cabins there, where their grandparents live, where their ancestors lived. There’s a really strong connection.”

For many, Nain may seem like a dreary, isolated place with high crime rates and even higher food prices.

“But the things they don’t talk about is how the land is so special to these people and they’re so connected,” she said. “It’s such an important part of their identity, where that makes them stay. Because you can’t really get that anywhere else.”

It’s also a place of magnificent landscapes, evidenced by the many photographs on Saksagiak’s Facebook page.

Inuit or not, Nain is arguably the most expensive place in the province to live.

Even milk is prohibitively expensive, says Saksagiak, despite being subsidized along with other health products.

Prices fluctuate widely, and direct comparisons are tricky, but for anyone not pulling in a government or professional salary, it’s a delicate balancing act.

“There are times when there is no fresh produce, or there are times when it’s too expensive to buy so no one buys it, so it just goes mouldy when it was already mouldy when it arrived,” she said.

So how do people get by?

“The people really don’t get by. People are having to choose between putting food on the table or paying rent, and that’s not getting by at all.," she said.

Many look to traditional sources, going out onto the land to get fish, partridge and moose. But they can’t hunt caribou anymore because the local herd is endangered, and the Nunatsiavut Government accepts the ban.

“When you look back on it, how our people used to live, they were really strong and really healthy. It was from the food that we got from the land,” says Saksagiak.

Lynn Blackwood, Nunatsiavut’s food security program manager, says her work is considered of utmost importance by the Inuit leadership.

“We have much higher rates of food insecurity than other parts of Canada,” she said.

And she has the numbers to prove it.

In 2007, an annual household survey conducted among Nunatsiavut communities found only 55.8 per cent were found to be food secure or marginally food secure.

In 2014, that number had dropped to 47 per cent.

At that time, 55.2 per cent of all households reported that in the past month, they had feared they’d run out of food before they had the money to buy more.

Climate change has only added to the problem.

When weather delays a flight, it could mean some shelves remain temporarily bare.

“January, February, (we’d been) pretty consistent with the weather. It would be large Labrador days, big sun, no barriers to travelling on the planes,” said Blackwood. “Over the last few years, the weather has become much more unpredictable.”

And apart from the ban on caribou, changing climate has also impeded ability to get wild game and fish.

“The ice conditions are changing, so local hunters, where they would have their traditional or their favourite place to go hunt and gather, they can’t access that like they used to because the ice is changing. Local traditional knowledge of hunting and gathering at specific places … is not what it used to be,” she said.

“When you think about the food system for Nunatsiavut, it is a mix between country food and store-bought food. There’s a balance there, and if people are having trouble accessing country food, then it could certainly cause people who may not have been food insecure to be insecure.”

That doesn’t even begin to address the strong emotional attachment to caribou meat, something they now have to import from other northern regions.

“Caribou is definitely a really important animal to us here in Nunatsiavut,” she said.

“Moose can replace … the protein and the calories and the energy, but it doesn’t satisfy that cultural hunger.”

One positive development for Nain came in 2018, with the discontinuation of a coastal freight boat that left Lewisporte and travelled along the Labrador coast.

Torngat Mountains MHA Lela Evans credits her election in 2019 almost solely on the issue of that northern supply route, which threated to make a dire situation almost incalculable.

She remembers talking to teachers in the area at the time.

“They said with the removal of that freight boat, we will see a problem keeping the teachers and being able to recruit the teachers.”

In 2019, the run from Lewisporte was replaced by the Mamutik W, which ferries passengers and freight from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to coastal ports as far as Nain.

Freight is cheap, and passengers can travel in their vehicles to stock up in Happy Valley themselves.

But as Evans points out, getting food to Goose Bay is especially expensive in today’s unpredictable climate of inflation and shaky supply routes.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the cost of getting the food into the communities now is really skyrocketing, and it is impacting teacher recruitment and retention,” she said.

On a Facebook group called “Concerning Happy Valley-Goose Bay,” a major topic of conversation is where to find the best deals.

And sometimes, the bad deals can be out of this world.

One resident recently marveled at a bag of frozen chicken wings going for 48.99 — a bag that at other times has hovered around $20.

That post garnered 150 comments.

On any given day, prices of many items can be about twice as much as they cost in St. John’s.

And Perry Trimper is at a loss to explain it, given that much of it is actually subsidized and much of the freight is now coming directly from ports like Montreal.

“It can be delivered within the next couple of days, so it’s arriving fresher, it’s less expensive,” said Trimper, Liberal MHA for Lake Melville.

“But yet the prices still remain high. Why the hell that is, I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

For Trimper, the most prohibitive cost in Labrador is travel.

Just to fly from his home to St. John’s costs about $1,400.

“The big thing that we’re all facing in Labrador is we’re only six per cent of the population, and particularly our medical services … most of them tend to be in St. John’s. This is out No. 1 problem,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I know people who have cancelled important appointments because they can’t even afford the downpayment, the differential, on the support that’s there right now,” he added.

“If you’ve got to go back for a second appointment, or a third, it gets more and more expensive.”

And that’s only travel for health reasons. Travel for sports, cultural events and simply connecting with family comes entirely out of pocket.

“It just makes that commitment to live in Labrador all that much tougher.”

As with Nain, there are other factors contributing to the high cost of living in central Labrador. Housing is one of them.

“We are still reeling from the effects of the Lower Churchill construction. During that construction period, apartment prices took right off. The demand was high and it really made it tough for those looking for low-income (housing),” he said.

“Even though the commitment was to have a fly-in, fly-out operation, there were still many people, hundreds of people who availed of opportunities to stay in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.”

Modest apartments can still run as much as $1,200 to $1,500 a month.

Trimper remains optimistic, however, and points in particular to Memorial University’s Pye Centre for Northern Boreal Food Systems.

“This, I think, is a game-changer,” he said. “We’ve got a large farm turned over now as a research facility. It’s running as a social enterprise, and all across Labrador people are watching different ways to grow different vegetables, different treatments, fertilizers and so on. And this is going to pay great dividends.”

Local farmers’ markets sell out very quickly, he said.

Nunatsiavut’s Blackwood agrees there’s a renewed focus not only on encouraging local food production — but also on the diminishing art of food literacy, storing and cooking one’s own food.

It’s complex equation, she says.

“Food security won’t be solved overnight," she said.

As for Samantha Saksagiak, she pauses when asked if she’ll be happy to go home for Christmas.

“It’s not a complete yes,” she admits reluctantly.

But it is her home, and she is close to her large family.

And as she recently wrote on her Facebook page, she’s determined to try to change the narrative:

“In my anthropology course, I had to tell my professor that there’s a difference between First Nations people and Inuit people. I’ve been called Eskimo, stereotyped, and asked if I live in igloos. It’s not my job to explain to these uneducated people about their own Canadian history. It is very traumatizing having to explain to people why it is the way it is," she said.

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram