Birdseye and Labrador

Go have a look in your freezer. More than likely it’s filled with beef, fish, green peas, blueberries, ice cream, and, of course, leftovers. We wouldn’t have frozen foods if it weren’t for Inuit ingenuity.

Bob Bartlett was intimately familiar with Inuit knowledge. Some explorers ignored it and tried to do things their own way but this rarely worked in the Arctic. (More about that in subsequent blog entries and in Unchained Man.)

Sometimes visitors to the Arctic and subarctic took or expropriated Inuit knowledge. One of the most well-known and influential examples of that resulted from Clarence Birdseye’s time in Cartwright, Southern Labrador. New York-born Birdseye (1886-1956) is now known as the founder of the frozen food industry. This industry changed the way we eat, as you can see every time you open your freezer. In Labrador, the Inuit showed Birdseye how fish froze instantly when caught in winter and then thawed retaining its fresh flavour. Birdseye patented the flash-frozen technique and the associated inventions he came up. In 1929, he sold his patents for no less than $22 million. The Inuit received no benefit from this.

Today Indigenous knowledge is more recognized but there are ongoing battles to safeguard it against multinationals like food giant Monsanto. Laws in most countries offer more protection to individual knowledge than they do to collectively-shared knowledge, which is the knowledge of Indigenous people.

In terms of Arctic exploration, Inuit knowledge saved countless lives. Bartlett knew this and often acknowledged it although he did not always give credit where it was due.

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