Seventy per cent of Inuit preschoolers in Nunavut live in homes where there isn't enough food, a situation with implications for children's development, a McGill University researcher says.

Infant death rates higher among Inuit

The Inuit in Canada's North have much higher rates of infant mortality compared with the rest of the country, a new study suggests.

Researchers looked at all births between 1990 and 2000, including 13,642 among residents of Inuit-inhabited areas and more than four million births elsewhere in Canada. 

The rate of infant death before one year of age was 3.61 times higher for Inuit areas compared with the rest of the Canada, the team found.

"These results highlight the dire maternal and infant health situations in the Inuit-inhabited areas," concluded Dr. Zhong-Cheng Luo of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal and his colleagues.

A substantial part of the higher fetal and infant mortality in Inuit areas may be preventable, the researchers said.

The researchers called for: 

  • Programs to reduce smoking, raise awareness about the dangers of second-hand smoke, and encourage breastfeeding.
  • "Back to sleep" campaigns to educate mothers to place babies on their backs to avoid sudden infant death syndrome.
  • Investments in improved socio-economic and living conditions.
  • More research to test whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to environmental contaminants from eating marine mammals and fish and the elevated risk of infant death from birth defects.

The average Nunavut family with young children is paying close to $430 a week for groceries, double the price for a family of the same size in the south, says professor Grace Egeland of the McGill Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment.

Egeland and her team reported their findings in a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Their study is based on face-to-face interviews with the mothers or other caregivers of 388 Inuit children aged three to five in 16 communities in 2007-2008.

"When a mother would get tears in her eyes when these questions are getting asked, we realized there are a lot of hidden problems that haven't really come to light," Egeland said.

Those problems range from adults skipping meals so that youngsters won't go hungry, to children sometimes not eating for a full day.

Impact on concentration

Dr. Isaac Sobol, Nunavut's chief medical officer, told CBC News that while the reported levels of hunger are nothing like those in impoverished nations, the lack of nutrition does have an impact on Inuit children's concentration and alertness.

"Children aren't very well prepared to engage properly in school if they're hungry," Sobol said.

The study also found that 29 per cent of children were obese and 39 per cent were overweight.

Egeland said it's not all that startling because parents buy foods high in carbohydrates, which tend to be cheap and filling. 

The good news is 44 per cent of children still have access to traditional food — either hunted by family members or shared among friends and neighbours. Still, Egeland cautioned that despite such access, her team gathered reports of children going hungry and skipping meals.

"Food insecurity is all too prevalent in homes with Inuit preschoolers in Canadian Arctic communities," Egeland and her co-authors wrote. "The data suggest that support systems need to be strengthened for Inuit families with young children."

Those supports include food banks and subsidies for food with high nutritional value, the authors suggested.

'Health crisis' possible

The issue of hunger in Nunavut deserves urgent attention, said David Wilman, a longtime resident who recently worked on a "report card" of the territorial government's programs and policies.

"If it doesn't, there'll be a crisis, I think — a health crisis, among not just children, among many Inuit and among many northerners," Wilman said.

Wilman said people in almost every community he visited while working on the report card reported that children were going to school hungry.

As for the reasons why there is widespread hunger, aside from overcrowded housing and unemployment, Wilman said people are not hunting traditional foods as much because they cannot afford hunting equipment.

As well, Wilman said, Nunavummiut are depending more on expensive store-bought food.

"The third part, I think, is unsuitable use of money when people who don't have a lot of resources spend money on gambling, on alcohol, on drugs," he added.