If you are laughing about the fermented walrus, you should know – it’s a real thing. I’ll get into that later.
I knew I wanted to go north years ago. I was never an adventurous person growing up, but then it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to stay in the town I grew up in. I haven’t stopped moving ever since. I’m always thinking, “Where else could I go that would provide that extra career challenge mixed with epic adventure?”
I started small, with a move from Vancouver to Prince George for my internship. I ended up working there for a while after internship, but when a short term position sprang up in Haida Gwaii, I pounced. I had always wanted to go there, and I thought working in a remote setting would be a good test of my skills/sanity.
I loved everything about Haida Gwaii: from grilling pineapple at the community events (it’s not just about the wieners, guys!), and helping people learn to cook in the community kitchen, to finding random fish skeletons in the forest. I truly enjoyed all of it.
I loved how it forced me to become more creative. When I was craving butter chicken but there was no chicken in the store for over a week, I learned to make paneer. If I magically ended up with more crabs than I could possibly eat (I know, my life is so tough), I would make crab cakes, crab ravioli, and crab salad sandwiches!
Learning about the traditional foods served in Haida Gwaii was a highlight: ka’aw, herring roe on kelp, was one of my favourites. It was an interesting change to live in a community of 700 where sunny days are spent fishing and gathering food. We went hiking every weekend, and although we usually brought strips of dried fish, we could grab handfuls of huckleberries and bog cranberries on the way.
After living in Vancouver, often isolated from food production, island life was an amazing change. Most people on Haida Gwaii know where at least part of each meal comes from.
Sadly, I knew this position on the island was only for five months. But, around when it was coming to an end, a position in Nunavut was posted. Before I was even contacted for an interview, I prepared myself. I learned more about the northern food culture and read up on the prevalent health issues in the area.
I found out quite a bit – it becomes clear that there is a difference in diets when the local food guide includes narwhal. However, there are many things you just can’t figure out until you get up north and experience it firsthand.
Four insights into practicing dietetics on Baffin Island:
It is not a cooking culture
It makes sense – there aren’t any trees for firewood. Country food (which is any of the traditional foods, including caribou, sea mammals, fish, seaweed, and berries) is traditionally eaten frozen and chopped. Understanding that many people did not grow up knowing how to cook is really important to consider when trying to understand people’s food choices.
It is easy to pass judgment when someone spends every penny they have on TV dinners and then goes hungry for days. But if someone doesn’t know how to cook from raw ingredients, they aren’t going to spend their limited funds on foods they can’t even prepare.
There is a Nunavut Food Guide (check it out!)
“Country food is best” is the basic idea – for many years, people were told not to eat it because it’s high in fat. That is true, but a lot of it is healthy fat and traditionally the Inuit got all of their nutrition from country foods. Muktak is a great source of vitamin D, which many Inuit people do not get enough of. Fermented walrus is a great traditional food but it can come with trichinosis, so I haven’t tried that one yet. Curried seal? Yes please! Muktak? Chewy goodness! Arctic char? All over it.
These country foods can have an interesting effect on blood lipids. For example, it is common to see a total cholesterol around seven, with an accompanying HDL over three. Grab your calculator – that ratio is glorious. On several occasions, I have seen a patient with a high LDL, on no medications, but then I look down to see a sky-high HDL.
The food up here is outrageously expensive
I paid $11 for three peppers the other day. The crazy thing is that this is a massive improvement compared to a couple of years ago, especially in terms of quality. As you might imagine, having grocery bills approximately 75% higher than anywhere else (if not more, depending on what you buy) is a significant barrier to healthy eating. In addition, high rates of unemployment and total devastation of traditional ways of life (there is currently a ban on hunting caribou, and transportation to hunting areas is an issue for many) can add to the problem.
The Nutrition North Canada program
, which replaced the Food Mail program, has aimed to improve access to perishable, nutritious foods. I’m not familiar enough with the old Food Mail program to really say if we’re better or worse off now. Although, I think that the program could use some improvements as some foods that I feel should be subsidized (like mixed, frozen vegetables) are not. But, I will say, I was happily surprised at the availability of different foods – despite shutting my eyes and passing over my wallet at the till.
Rickets is a major problem…and TB…and congenital sucrose-isomaltase deficiency
There are many health issues prevalent here that I had not really come across before I moved north. I didn’t realize rickets was still around, but now it is a regular part of my practice. Diabetes is beginning to creep up, but my impression is that it isn’t as prevalent (yet) as anywhere I’ve worked in the south.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, I feel like I learn something that blows my mind almost daily. Finding the balance between a traditional lifestyle and modern convenience is a work in progress! Having said that, I love my work here. It has enriched my career and my life. If you have ever considered working in a remote or new/intimidating area – go for it! You will not regret it.
Editor’s note: April’s sense of adventure is inspiring! Not many people have the courage to work in these remote areas, far away from their friends and family. Although, those that have done so seem to have nothing but great things to say about the experience.
Have you had an experience similar to this? Do you have more insights to share?
Please share your thoughts, comments and questions below. April and I would love to hear from you!