With the closure of the local ferry on Wednesday, the Northwest Territories village of Fort Simpson must now wait weeks for the Liard River ice to settle before people and goods can cross by ice road.
The river separates the community of 1,200 people from the highway to Yellowknife and the south. When the ice freezes up in fall and breaks in spring, there's no way for vehicles to get in or out.
During those periods – which each last for weeks – helicopters carry food, people, and supplies into the community at nearly $300 per crossing. Hunted meat can help to fill the gap, but freeze-up is a time when everyday items and healthy food options can become costly.
Fort Simpson this year asked to participate in the federal Nutrition North program to offset some of the heightened costs during freeze-up, but the village is still waiting to hear if it qualifies.
Each year, the village's Northern grocery store ends its sales flyers when the ferry stops running. That means the last few weeks of sales at the Northern are an important opportunity to stock up before freeze-up.
Last month, a mix-up over when those sales should end – the flyers were inadvertently terminated earlier than they should have been, and the Northern subsequently restored some sale prices – highlighted both how reliant some residents are on the sales to make it through freeze-up, and the absence of any better food-security solutions.
David Adamson runs sales and operations for the N.W.T. district of the North West Company, which owns the Northern chain.
Adamson said relying on helicopters to restock Fort Simpson's store during freeze-up is costly and only so many items can be carried. Heavier items are rushed into the village before ferry service ends.
Perishable foods are given priority on the helicopter shuttle runs. For residents, that makes stocking up on non-perishables and dry goods beforehand crucial, since they are less likely to be restocked.
Fort Simpson's mayor, Sean Whelly, says it's not just food. He told Cabin Radio "vehicles and almost every goods and service you can think of are affected" by a combination of the village's annual freeze-up challenge and the current global supply-chain crunch.
The COVID-19 pandemic and a range of associated factors have led to a surge in worldwide shipping costs, backlogs at major ports, and delays in the manufacturing of many items as companies scramble for parts.
“We’re the most downstream type of communities there are," Whelly said of places like Fort Simpson. "At the end of the supply chain is where you get the most whiplash, the highest impact.
“Prices have gone up on a lot of things ... I don’t like people to be in a situation where the quality of food they choose is impacted by their inability to pay rent, the power bills, and things like that – it’s a terrible crunch to be put in."
Chief Kele Antoine of the community's Líídlįį Kúę First Nation said the meat, produce, and fruit arriving in Fort Simpson is already "less than satisfactory" even without freeze-up imperilling grocery shipments.
“We have high-carb, high-starch foods that are cheaper to produce," said Chief Antoine. "Pair that with a dwindling economy in the North and COVID-19, and you end up with people trying their best to eat healthy, but the cost of fresh food is just too high to make ends meet.
“The reality is that we need more support, more funding for our local growers, along with a decrease in power rates and a decrease in the astronomical internet bills that have been shared with me from our community members."
Last year, a report from the northern social justice think-tank Alternatives North suggested affording food is a worry for one in four families in smaller N.W.T. communities. The group said data from programs to counter food insecurity remains "scarce."
Families hunt and fish to counter the cost of store-bought groceries. Alternatives North reported more than a third of households in smaller communities "harvest 75-percent or more of the fish or meat they consume," but that in turn is being threatened by the changing climate.
Antoine said Fort Simpson's surrounding Dehcho region has just had its moose-harvesting period. The Líídlįį Kúę First Nation holds donated meat and fish in freezers for distribution to Elders, long-term care patients, the community's soup kitchen, and others in need.
Antoine said the First Nation and its business arm, Nogha Enterprises, plan to purchase a hydroponic vegetable-growing facility to “help us grow leafy greens and herbs throughout the year, even through winter.”
Increasingly, N.W.T. communities are expanding the ways they produce food locally to combat food insecurity.
Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge of the Deh Gáh Got’ı̨ę First Nation, east of Fort Simpson in the community of Fort Providence, said COVID-19 relief money provided by governments had allowed his First Nation to compensate people who gathered extra fresh fish for the community.
Fort Providence is working to establish a fish plant where residents can process fish for commercial sale.
To the north, the Sahtu community of Délı̨nę is exploring construction of a country food processing plant.
Fort Simpson's village council is discussing the creation of a greenhouse operated by local school students. The village already financially supports the school’s lunch program to help kids get food throughout the day.
“Unemployment is high and opportunities are low," said Whelly. During freeze-up, he added, "we could see issues with proper nutrition and food impacting kids."
The mayor said: “I think parents try everything they can to make sure their kids gets food, but it’s nice to have it at the schools just in case.
"It fills a gap that you never want to see opening up: kids going to school hungry, impacting their ability to learn and develop properly.”
In the longer term, the territorial government is studying whether a permanent bridge over the Liard River is feasible. That study is due for completion by the end of 2021.
Help from Nutrition North, the federal program that lowers the cost of some groceries through subsidies paid to stores, won't arrive in time for this freeze-up season.
Only recently has some N.W.T. communities' intermittent road access been recognized as a qualifying factor for the program. Earlier this year, five of the territory's communities were added to Nutrition North for the duration of their freeze-up and break-up periods.
Fort Simpson was not on that list but has for months lobbied to be added. Mayor Whelly believes the village loses at least 50 days of road access each year to the unstable river ice.
Kyle Fournier, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada – the federal department that oversees Nutrition North – told Cabin Radio staff are “working to provide the community with certainty well ahead of the spring break-up season.”
Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio