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Canadians help Northern neighbours
Facebook group sheds light on high food prices in North, stirs Canadians to act

Miranda Scotland
Northern News Services
Published Monday, December 22, 2014

Canadians appalled by exorbitant prices in the North are helping families in the territories by sending boxes filled with basic items, such as food, clothes and baby supplies.

NNSL photo/graphic

Inuvik resident Janna MacKay is sending this box filled with flour, sugar, pasta, pasta sauce, canned goods, granola bars, oatmeal, cereal, UHT milk, skimmed milk powder, almonds, cooking oil, cake mix, chocolates, a cookbook and a Christmas card to an NWT family in need. MacKay received the address of the family through the social media group Helping our Northern Neighbours, which is co-ordinating an effort to send food to families in isolated communities. - photo courtesy of Janna MacKay

Vancouver Island resident Jennifer Gwilliam is organizing the effort. In July, she created the Facebook group 'Helping our Northern Neighbours' to connect Northerners with southerners who want to lend a hand.

Gwilliam was inspired after stumbling on Feeding My Family, a social media group started by Nunavut's Leesee Papatsie, that aims to raise awareness about high food costs in the three territories.

"It was shocking," said Gwilliam. "I had just bought at a case lot sale a flat of water, which I think was $2.97, and they had a picture posted up there where it was $104 or something. I absolutely couldn't believe 24 bottles of water would be $104. It was just appalling."

Gwilliam, 59, has a long-standing interest in humanitarian causes and she's helped all over the world. She got her start by sponsoring a child when she herself was only 10 years old.

"I really wanted to do some sort of major project to help in Canada and when this opportunity presented itself it just seemed perfect," she said, noting there were a number of posts on Feeding My Family from people asking for assistance but there was no organized response.

Helping our Northern Neighbours now boasts more than 1,000 members from not only Canada but also the United States and Europe.

Individuals or groups wanting to help can choose to sponsor a family, which requires a commitment to send a minimum of four boxes a year, or send a single box to a family at the top of the waiting list.

Currently, there are 150 families, a women's shelter in Iqaluit and three food banks, located in Pangnirtung, Repulse Bay and Arctic Bay, on the rotating list. Five of the families are located in Ulukhaktok and one in Tulita. The rest of the people on the list live in Nunavut.

Another 10 or so families have been sponsored, according to Gwilliam.

Janna MacKay, who recently moved to Inuvik, has committed to sending a box to a two-person family in the NWT.

She first heard about the social media group through Pictou Landing First Nation, of which she is a member.

"The chief, Andrea Paul, made the initial connection with Helping our Northern Neighbours and brought it forward to the community to sponsor a large family," MacKay explained in an e-mail to News/North.

"I decided to send a box of goodies because I wasn't able to contribute when my home community was organizing their donation. It was so motivating seeing my community come together to support this family. I thought I could do the same on a slightly smaller scale."

As a registered dietician, MacKay focused on good nutrition while choosing which items to send. She included canned fruits and beans, almonds, pasta, a few treats and a cookbook, among other items.

The box weighed 21.42 kg and cost $57.25 to ship, she stated.

Shipping costs the biggest barrier

The biggest barrier to getting people to help, said Gwilliam, is the price of shipping.

"The boxes I send are 18 by 18 by 12 and they weigh between 15 and 24 kg and I'm paying anywhere from $85 to $140 to ship it."

Members of the group have been in contact with airlines that fly North to see if they would be willing to provide complimentary or discounted shipping but nothing has been agreed on.

In the meantime, Helping our Northern Neighbours is reconsidering sending parcels directly to individual families.

"We'd like to switch over to a food bank system where we will help the food banks and where we can get larger amounts of food sent to one single place, which will be much more efficient because they will know the people and who is in need of help," said Gwilliam.

"We've had a couple of emergency situations and then, it's been quite difficult to mobilize to get food to them quickly so that would be eliminated if we were working through food banks rather than individual people."

For instance, parents had to leave behind two of their teenage boys to go to Winnipeg with a third son who was battling cancer. The boys didn't have much food available to them so members of Helping our Northern Neighbours quickly stepped in and sent the teens a box of food.

Hunger Count 2014, a report from Food Banks Canada, found food banks across the three territories assisted 4,649 people in 2014, 1,127 more than in 2013. The report also notes that the North faces the highest rates of severe food insecurity in Canada. Approximately 70 per cent of households in Nunavut are considered "food insecure."

The group has also had the added benefit of opening up a dialogue about the challenges facing the territories. Many members have asked to have a private conversation with someone willing to share their experiences.

"We're making genuine friendships and this is allowing us to learn more about the people, about the area, about their traditions and their crafts, their artistry, all these sorts of things," said Gwilliam.

"I had barely heard of the place before. I knew it was a new territory but I didn't know anything about it."

MacKay said she really likes that the group is about "people helping people."

"Food prices in the North can be difficult to grasp, especially since just moving here. I think if you are strategic in meal planning and grocery shopping it can be managed, but sometimes people just need a helping hand. And that's what the group is trying to offer. It's not a long term solution, just about people wanting to help someone in need."

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