KUUJJUAQ, Quebec - On my flight from Kuujjuaq to Montreal, the person
sitting next to me had 20 ptarmigan packed in her luggage. The game birds
were a gift for Inuit friends in Montreal who missed the traditional fare
of their home - Nunavik, the Arctic portion of Quebec.
Though loyalty to ptarmigan, caribou, seal and other so-called "country
foods" that Inuit have eaten for millennia still runs high in the 14
villages of Nunavik - as well as among relations living elsewhere - modern
foods have made inroads in recent years. These days, store shelves in the
region are chock full of nutrition-poor convenience foods, soda pop,
cookies and other snacks.
The effect on health has been immediate, according to Mandy Graham,
nutritionist with the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services:
"The trend to diabetes is just beginning here. It's due to the change in
food habits and a more sedentary lifestyle. We're not seeing the
percentages you find in other First Nations in Canada, but it is
Iron deficiency is another contemporary problem. "Country foods are high in
iron and other minerals," explained Graham. "When people make a habit of
substituting soda pop and a bag of chips for a real meal, they end up with
an iron-poor diet."
The health board's recently-released food guide intends to remedy the
situation by emphasizing nutrition-dense traditional foods, which appear in
each of the four food groups shown. The chart's domed shape is based on a
rainbow-like format used in other parts of Canada, with some important
"An Inuk artist, Sammy Kudluk, did the illustration," said Shirley Dupuis,
Inuk, a nurse at Tulattavik Ungava Hospital in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik's largest
town. "He made the food guide into an igloo, with an Inuit family in the
center, so it represents our culture." Dupuis worked on the project with
another nurse, Suzanne Paradis, who first envisioned a Nunavikspecific
Paradis' viewpoint squares with that of a February paper from the
Dietitians of Canada. In "Feeding Mind, Body and Spirit," the national
professional organization generally encouraged the consumption of
traditional foods, the use of traditional modes of healing and the creation
of community-specific nutrition-education resources.
The group also identified the boarding school era, which ended in Canada in
1996, as a source of today's diet-related health issues: "There was no
place for Aboriginal culture or values, including the food to which [the children] were accustomed ... food was often seen as a punishment or
reward, permanently affecting the way food choices would be made by
residents and future generations."
Because the smallest arch of the Nunavik chart contains images of meat and
fish, dearly-loved traditional foods end up closest to the Inuit family
depicted. "In my practical mind, meat and fish naturally belonged in that
section because you need the smallest number of servings of them, but it
also worked artistically. It all just fell into place," said Dupuis, who
translated the text into Inuttitut.
Local fare appears in other sections as well. There's bannock in the large
outer semicircle, with its grain-based items; berries turn up in the next
lower curve, among the fruits and vegetables. "Collecting berries - until
the snow flies - is a big thing for women here," said Dupuis.
Fish make a surprise appearance in the next arch down, which primarily
includes dairy foods. "People here make fish-head soup," said Graham. "Fish
bones are a great source of calcium, so they're included in the dairy
section. Fish is also shown with meat in the lowest arc, of course."
The Nunavik food guide is also intended to counteract publicity about
contaminants such as mercury that have been found in the Arctic, carried
there on the wind from industrialized parts of the globe. The discovery of
pollution in this seemingly remote and pristine land caused residents to
worry about the safety of local food.
"Yes, there are contaminants, but in very small amounts," said Graham.
"It's also important for people to know that while fish may have some
mercury in it, it also contains selenium, which helps protect against
mercury. There are just a small number of foods that we have to tell
pregnant and breastfeeding women to avoid, and they're primarily things
people don't eat very often anyway, such as seal liver."
The Nunavik food guide, available in Inuttitut, English and French, has
been provided to hospitals and nursing stations in villages, stores and
community organizations around the region. Teams of nurses, teachers and
dietitians have done programs in the schools, particularly during March,
dubbed "nutrition month."
Coming soon from the health board is a cookbook featuring healthy recipes,
which will enhance the effectiveness of the guide. "The regional diabetes
coordinator put it together," said Graham. "Though its focus is diabetes,
it's about healthy eating in general, with dishes you can feed the whole