Brescia team reaches helping hand north

Taloyoak, formerly known as Spence Bay until 1992, is located on the southwestern coast of Boothia Peninsula at the Northwest Passage. It is the northernmost community on Canada’s mainland. With population of 1,029, the community is served only by air and by annual supply sealift. The hamlet name of Taloyoak means ‘large caribou hunting blind’ in Inuktitut. These screens were built with piled stones along the caribou migration routes.

Any day now, a family on the northernmost tip of Canada’s mainland will receive a care package from a group of university students. And when the boxes arrive, their journey north will have been at least as interesting as the food and clothing they contain.

It’s a story of scarce resources and food insecurity, of high food costs and even higher shipping costs. It’s also a story whose heart winds its way from China to Caledon to Brescia University College – and finally to a family of six in Taloyoak, Nunavut Territory.

Brittany Ennis, a third-year Brescia student studying French and Political Science, is president of Free the Children Brescia, a campus club in its second year of raising money and supporting community-building in Canada and abroad. Last week, the club won the Club of the Year Award during the affiliate college’s student leader recognition event.

“I wanted something where I could take a bit more of a leadership role,” she said. “I’ve always liked being able to make a difference, whether that’s something small or something bigger.”

When Ennis joined the club last year, she participated in its Day of Silence to combat bullying and helped ‘scare away hunger’ during a Halloween fundraiser. Earlier, in high school, Ennis had helped mobilize classmates to donate school supplies to an orphanage in Hubei province in China – the same orphanage from which her Canadian parents had adopted her as a baby.

Looking beyond her personal story and into another’s had become more than a habit – it was a calling.

As president of the club this year, she wanted to support community causes and, “I wanted to do something that was outside of London.”

When the group learned of Helping our Northern Neighbours – a Facebook group that connects southern Canadians wanting to share with northerners facing prohibitively high food prices in remote communities – they knew they had found a good fit.

Brescia professor Andrew Chater, research fellow at the Polar Research and Policy Initiative and faculty advisor to Free the Children Brescia, said he may have offered input on the options but the group ran with the idea.

Their matching family in Taloyoak includes a grandmother, her children and their children. They asked for children’s shoes, winter coats and non-perishable food items. Buying those items in the north would be prohibitively expensive. In Iqaluit, it would cost at least double the price southerners pay. In fly-in communities such as Taloyoak, where groceries and everything else must arrive by air or by sealift, that would be 5-to-10 times the price charged in southern Ontario.

Sending goods, rather than sending money, “is how to get the most bang for your buck,” he said.

In Nunavut, about 40 per cent of the population has food insecurity, and 60 per cent of children live in food-insecure households, he said.

“In Canada you’d expect a certain standard of living for a developed country,” he said. “Even in Canada, there are problems of ‘developed’ and ‘developing,’” and wide gaps between the two, particularly between non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities.”

Ennis and her group made arrangements to fill the family’s grocery list.

Then came the sticker shock. Not the cost of groceries – which included rice, crackers, flour, soup mix and Jello powder – but the expense of shipping. ‘Free shipping in Canada’ didn’t necessarily extend to a community accessible only by air, or by large boat for two months a year. They had to scramble or face a fee of $2,400.

“I was on the phone for about four hours,” Ennis said. “We had to go through multiple companies because of how complex it was. Everything was just so expensive: $500 to $600 was the starting point (for delivery).”

Eventually she sourced most of the food through the online store at well.ca, which guaranteed delivery for about $100. A few other items, including the coat and shoes, were sourced separately, for a shipping cost of $57.

Now, the Brescia club is as anxious about the impending delivery as the Nunavut family is.

Their excitement is tempered by the sobering reminder not all Canadians have access to a wide selection of relatively inexpensive food. “There were a lot of hoops Brittany and the others had to jump through. None of us realized how complicated it was going to be,” Chater said. “But for people who live there, that’s a daily fact of life.”