Cultural and Environmental History of Northern Food Hazards

Area of Research: 
Traditional knowledge


To understand whether concerns about environmental contamination or potentially hazardous food products influenced women’s decisions about how to feed newborn infants after 1970.


This research seeks to understand whether concerns about environmental contamination or potentially hazardous food products (included imported foods) influenced women’s decisions about how to feed newborn infants after 1970. More broadly, the research team seeks to understand what factors (social, cultural, economic, environmental) influenced choices about feeding infants in the Mackenzie Delta region between 1970 and the present and how these factors may have changed over time. 

First, the archival work involves identifying documentary materials held in the Northwest Territories Archives, Library, and Archives Canada, and elsewhere that are relevant to understanding historical experiences of food hazards and contamination in the North as well as northern women’s experiences in the late twentieth century. 

Second, the principal investigator and/or research assistant reached out to community heritage organizations (including, for instance, the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute and the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre) to identify whether there are any existing oral history collections that might be relevant to the project. The research team will enter into research agreements with these institutions, as necessary, in order to work with relevant materials. 

Third, the principal investigator and research assistant aim to identify 15-20 women, who cared for newborn infants between 1970 and the present in any of the four named communities, and who are interested in sharing their experiences about the choices they made in feeding those children. The research team will interview these women individually, beginning in fall 2015. The team will follow-up with the interviewees to ensure that they remain interested in participating in the research project in 2016, to share the research findings to date, and to ask any additional questions that might have emerged as the research develops. The research team does not anticipate that follow-up interviews will be as intensive or time-consuming as the initial interviews. The aim is to produce initial research results (publications, conference papers) in 2017.

Local involvement in this project will primarily amount to participation, by locals, as interviewees. Some of the potential benefits that might stem from participation in the project include: 
1. Choosing how to feed a newborn, whether by bottle or breast, is a critical decision in a baby's (and mother's) life. Many women enjoy sharing their experiences of feeding their babies, particularly in a non-judgemental atmosphere. For some of the women involved in this research, it might have been many years since they had the opportunity to talk about their experiences with their young children and this could be very enjoyable. 
2. Participation will provide women with greater information about the history of toxic exposure in their community. This can help them to make informed decisions about risks and hazards of toxic exposures.
3. Many indigenous women feel it is very important that their experiences and choices figure as prominently in the history of their communities as the decisions and experiences of outsiders, scientists, researchers, and politicians. This study will be an opportunity to focus on these experiences and choices and highlight their history and significance. 

The research team will prepare materials to share with the wider communities, including possibly poster presentations for display in local community halls or schools, articles or stories (which the team would aim to publish in community newspapers or magazines, and online), and radio interviews. Copies of all published research products will also be sent to local libraries and heritage organizations (including the Inuvik Centennial Library, the offices of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, and the Yellowknife Public Library). 

The fieldwork for this study was conducted from November 10, 2015, to December 2015.