Environmental health in the North: The example of nutrition

Dog tethered by drying rack of fish for dog food (most likely inconnu) Busse/NWT Archives/N-1979-052-1523

Dog tethered by drying rack of fish for dog food (most likely inconnu) Busse/NWT Archives/N-1979-052-1523

For several years now, I have been researching and writing about the relationships between health and environmental change in the North over the past 150 years. When I initiated this project, it was enormous in scope, reaching from the late-eighteenth century right up to the present. I came at the topic from the perspective of Alfred Crosby’s seminal work on ecological imperialism. Specifically, I wished to explore the role that disease organisms played in facilitating the imposition of colonial control over the lands and people who would eventually make up Canada’s three northern territories (the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut). The materials and stories that have endured in the oral and archival record ultimately took me in other directions. Euro-Canadian germs worked as assistant colonizers in a process of social and environmental change that was its most intense from the late-nineteenth century into the late-twentieth century, and culminated in moments of crisis across the North in this period. These moments of crisis were signalled by epidemic outbreaks (such as a 1928 influenza epidemic in the Mackenzie Valley and a 1949 poliomyelitis outbreak in Chesterfield Inlet) and episodes of starvation (including the well-known famine in the Keewatin in the 1950s). These crises, in turn, shaped the emerging colonial relationships binding camps with communities, north and south, and defining northern society and economy in the twentieth century. Thus it was the responses to ill-health and ecological change that shaped much of the colonial apparatus of the Canadian state in the North.

I explore one example of this process in my paper. This example focuses on diet and food: northerners harvested the land for food, not through agriculture, but rather by relying on hunting (large game animals, marine mammals, smaller fur bearers, and a range of waterfowl), fishing, and consuming a wide range of plants and berries. The health of northern environments and the health of northern people were closely connected. Northern lands and waters were transformed in the twentieth century: as a result of increased hunting, trapping, and fishing (to the point of over-harvesting of game animals, fur-bearers, fowl, and fish species); as part of new industrial developments; and through the emergence of new commercial and social geographies (new transport routes, new populations centres, and so forth). So, too, northern diets changed. Store-bought foods replaced “country foods” relatively early in the twentieth century. This was part of a larger dietary shift, by northerners, in response to new food products, new economies, and new relationships with the land. But changes in northern diet did not only arise organically, so to speak, from the larger changes underway. Rather, as my essay demonstrates, by the latter half of the twentieth century, the Canadian state came to use nutrition and nutritional science as the means by which to understand and to attempt to manage changing relationships between (predominantly Aboriginal) northerners and their environments. That is, diet became a tool of colonization and “nutrition” a means for colonizers to deal with the impacts they were having in the North.

1. Inuit man and woman waiting for seals at breathing holes, from William Edward Parry, Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-west Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Performed in the Years 1821-23 in H.M. Ships the Fury and Hecla. London: John Murray, 1824.

1. Inuit man and woman waiting for seals at breathing holes, from William Edward Parry,
Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-west Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Performed in the Years 1821-23 in H.M. Ships the Fury and Hecla. London: John Murray, 1824.

2. Inuk woman is picking blueberries on a hill near the campsite [using cup]. 26-9-53 NWT Archives/Douglas Wilkinson fonds/N-1979-051: 0174

2. Inuk woman is picking blueberries on a hill near the campsite [using cup]. 26-9-53
NWT Archives/Douglas Wilkinson fonds/N-1979-051: 0174

3. Edward Blondin (holding horns) and Jean Baptiste in boatload of butchered moose at Port Radium Busse/NWT Archives/N-1979-052-1838

3. Edward Blondin (holding horns) and Jean Baptiste in boatload of butchered moose at Port Radium Busse/NWT Archives/N-1979-052-1838

4. Boys examining a huge load of fish from Fish Point- 15 miles from Hay River. Bishop Lucas helping unload the fish, c. 1920 YK Museum Soc./NWT Archives/N-1979-056-0035

4. Boys examining a huge load of fish from Fish Point- 15 miles from Hay River. Bishop Lucas helping unload the fish, c. 1920 YK Museum Soc./NWT Archives/N-1979-056-0035

4. Boys examining a huge load of fish from Fish Point- 15 miles from Hay River. Bishop Lucas helping unload the fish, c. 1920 YK Museum Soc./NWT Archives/N-1979-056-0035

4. Boys examining a huge load of fish from Fish Point- 15 miles from Hay River. Bishop Lucas helping unload the fish, c. 1920 YK Museum Soc./NWT Archives/N-1979-056-0035

5. Inuit at the Hudson's Bay Company warehouse, 1946 or 1947 George Hunter / Library and Archives Canada / e004665353

5. Inuit at the Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse, 1946 or 1947
George Hunter / Library and Archives Canada / e004665353

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Liza Piper is an associate professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

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