Why Vegetarianism Dies up North

Living in Yellowknife taught me that there are no simple arguments when it comes to what we eat

A plate of bison meatballs
A plate of bison meatballs. Photo by Amy Lam

About a month after moving to Yellowknife four years ago, I had lunch with two people I’d just met who were also recent transplants to the city. We gathered at the Smokehouse Café, an Indigenous-owned restaurant in the neighbouring community of N’dilo, for their daily buffet of Northern home cooking. My new acquaintances piled their plates with bison and smoked char; my plate filled with the pasta special of the day, rice, veggies, and salads. There was a chuckle when they realized I was vegetarian.

I was told that Yellowknife is the place where vegetarianism dies. Meat creep starts with the fish, I was told, and then the occasional bite of wild meat that you won’t be able to refuse—unless you want to be less than gracious to your host, who literally killed for your meal. Before you know it, it’s wings night every Wednesday. (In my short time there, I had already quickly learned the importance of Wings Wednesday in a place with a shortage of public, social spaces for congregating.) “It’s very common. I know at least three well-intentioned, long-term vegetarians that have converted since moving here. Don’t bother fighting it,” I was advised, in a way that can only be relayed by a smug meat eater to a self-righteous vegetarian.

Prior to moving to Yellowknife, I had not had red meat for about sixteen years, poultry for about eight, and fish for about four. I had stopped eating the larger animals first, with the common—if not entirely correct—logic that size somehow correlated to sentience. For me, choosing not to eat meat stemmed from moral reasons, but also environmental reasons. The cruelty of our global factory farming system has been widely documented: both the animals and those who work with them suffer, and it contributes significantly to environmental degradation and climate change. However, thinking back to that lunch at the Smokehouse now, it’s hard to argue that the vegetables and grains grown in unknown locations and conditions and then trucked up north were more ecologically sound than the locally harvested bison and char.

I moved to Yellowknife from Toronto. It was easy being a vegetarian there—trendy, even. Friends who could never imagine giving up meat would still indulge in the occasional meatless Monday and not put up a fight when you suggested dining at a vegetarian place. Raw-food bars, vegetarian comfort-food diners, vegan poutine joints, you name it. Toronto is an extremely accommodating city for its vegetarians and vegans. Yellowknife, not so much.

Vegetarian options at Yellowknife restaurants tend to be an afterthought, and my dietary choices were much harder to socially integrate. Vegetarians are a much smaller subgroup, and we’re living on land that has been traditionally dependent largely on animals for sustenance. Moose and caribou are revered here.

Eating fish started almost immediately. A welcome-to-Yellowknife meal at the iconic Bullocks Bistro, famous for their heaping plates of local fish, was supposed to be an exception. However, the accessibility of some of the best fish in the world was hard to resist. The fish here is fresh, affordable, and comes from waters that are not overfished. I had my first taste of wild meat almost two years ago in Hay River. I was taking a course at the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) along with students from all over the territory. NFTI teaches sustainable and practical agricultural skills adapted to northern climates, and aims to promote food security in our northern communities. The food served at the courses was always very good and included locally grown, foraged, or hunted ingredients. The students were told we could bring wild meat to share. In that particular course, a moose roast was contributed and slowly simmered for hours in a red wine sauce made by our chef. I took a bite, and it was delicious. Despite not having had red meat for eighteen years, it did not taste unfamiliar or feel weird. My digestive system did not revolt.

I was happy to have participated socially in that meal and pleased at my bravery in having tried the moose, but I didn’t make an active choice to eat meat again until last year. What finally wore me down was a combination of bouts of anemia that supplements weren’t able to remedy, a reexamination of why I chose not to eat meat, and a better understanding of the ecology of a sustainable food system.

Eventually, it took learning how to grow my own vegetables to change my views on eating meat.

I wanted to grow my food in a sustainable way, according to natural ecology. This meant avoiding chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuels. We are so far removed from our food systems and the natural world that most of us don’t know what’s involved in growing food. Our exposure to procuring food is largely limited to perfectly graded items on store shelves. But when you grow your own food, you quickly learn that life does not exist without death. My soil was nourished with bone and blood meal, manure, and compost. Bone and blood. So while I did not kill for my food, something did have to die. At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s the circle of life.

None of my arguments for being a vegetarian made sense here. Morally, I do not have an issue with wild meat if it is hunted in a sustainable and respectful way. In a balanced ecology, there is an important role for the predator and prey. A sustainable environment requires both. Ecologically, is a vegetarian-based diet sustainable? Not within our current model of industrial agriculture. It requires continuous inputs of fossil fuels, synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. All of this, combined with heavy tillage and irrigation, is degrading topsoil, a vital part of life on earth. While no animals were killed directly for my brown rice, the decline of biodiversity and wildlife for agricultural land meant blood was still on my plate. My intentions for a more sustainable world through a vegetarian diet were well-meaning, but misguided.

Can the world eat less meat? Definitely. Should we eliminate meat altogether? Yes and no. Strong arguments can be made that our model of livestock production is not sustainable. It’s so far removed from farming that it’s no longer even called farming. They’re now called animal feeding operations (AFO) or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). Livestock is kept in a confined space and fed mostly soy and corn, a diet effective for helping animals quickly reach market weight, but not natural to their digestive systems. The soy and corn are grown in conditions that are unsustainable for the reasons already mentioned above. If this is the model of meat production that we’re working with, then yes, it should be eliminated. But the world still needs to be fed—all 7.4 billion of us.

So how do we feed the world? I’m not sure. Wild harvest and wild meat is good, but it certainly can’t sustain our population. The model that resonates the most with me morally and environmentally is one that is local, small scale, and regenerative. I use the word “regenerative” rather than “organic” because a regenerative farming system uses a system of proper and respectful livestock management as an input for growing food and rebuilding soil health. In turn, the output of food also plays a role in feeding animals. We’re back to the circle of life again. Funny how nature has it right, isn’t it?

The decision on what to eat can be very personal and based on many reasons—moral, ethical, environmental, social, and regional, to name a few. Neither a vegetarian nor meat based diet should be considered superior to the other. Our food system is too nuanced and complex for one to be simply good and the other bad. Since being in the North, I’ve realized that the issues I had with eating meat were rooted in the fact that many parts of that system are broken. I now eat fish and I have made a choice to occasionally eat wild or sustainably farmed meat. But I have continued to opt of out of Wednesday wings night—not quite fulfilling the predictable pattern of a doomed vegetarian in Yellowknife.

This essay was adapted from “Meat Creep”, an article in the April/May issue of EdgeYK magazine.

Amy Lam
Amy Lam is based in Yellowknife and works in policy and planning. She spends most of her spare time on local food issues, and immersing herself in food styling, writing, and photography.