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Urban 'disgust', northern reality

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Let's set up this story, the way all such stories are now told: hey, did you see that thing about that woman on the Montreal Metro who plucked a bird?

This is a story about a quiet failure. Not hers. It is a story about how urban Canada has failed to understand food, and each other.

Maybe you saw the video, grainy, shot from a smartphone tilted vertically. In it, the young woman is bending down from a subway car seat, fussing with something in a plastic bag. She doesn't look up from this task, doesn't see the disgust smeared on passengers' faces. "I'm going to vomit," one man says, in French.

At least one of these people notified police. More on that later. It becomes more relevant, after the Internet has done its dirtiest work: which is to say, taking a small event, one that doesn't impact lives or the world in any serious way, and blowing it all out of any decent proportion. Since the original YouTube video was filmed on July 1, it has racked up almost 300,000 views.

Last week, it finally caught fire in the news, ricocheting across global headlines the way these things always do. Some stories dutifully repeated a claim the woman ate the bird raw: she didn't, they would learn later, but that fact would hardly have slowed the titillated tide. Soon, the appetite for the story consumed even her name. "Montreal bird plucker," several headlines called her. This, even after she spoke up, and chose to be known.

Her name is Christina David. She is an Inuk woman from Nunavik in the northern reaches of Quebec, she is 22 years old, and she moved to Montreal four years ago.

On that July 1, according to Nunatsiaq News online, David's aunt gave her a ptarmigan hunted near Salluit, a village of about 1,200 people close to the waters of Hudson Strait. According to Salluit's website, its name means "the thin ones." Today, the region is rich with the food of the North: berries, mussels, caribou. But long ago, oral history records, some Inuit travelled to the area hearing wildlife was in abundance, found little, and almost starved.

Food and family and community are deeply entwined in the North. So it has always been, since long before colonizers saw its vast shores. So it will be.

And this is the background against which David received a ptarmigan, popped it in a bag, and hopped on the Metro. It had been two years since she had last eaten "country food," she told Vice Canada in an interview, so she was brimming with excitement to get it back home to cook it up with some mushrooms. Caught up in that excitement, she reached into the bag and yanked feathers. Just that, nothing more. No blood even, and no mess.

"If they really know about our people, like how we go hunting... then they would understand," David said, in an interview with Montreal's online BQWSC podcast.

The show hosts peppered her with questions: is ptarmigan a delicacy? Is it expensive? David paused, confronted by the gulf between how she's learned the world, and how the hosts have learned theirs. "Us Inuit, we don't buy that," she said. "We hunt it up North, and we share it with our people. We give it for free to our people in the villages."

There is something else in the podcast that struck, when host Chris Wilding summed the story up: "You hear 'bird,' and you think 'where did they find that bird?' " he said. "In today's society, it's almost a barbaric act."

Almost a barbaric act. The phrase says so much about where urban Canada is at, about how divorced we have become from our food. So removed that, as of Tuesday, a Montreal municipal court was still considering fining David for "disturbing the peace," because the other passengers were "disgusted." And while many Inuit are engaged in lively online debate about whether the subway was the time or the place, I'm more struck by what's behind that word, disgust.

To live in a city necessitates, sometimes, being disgusted. Despite some claims about concern for public health, let's be honest: if David had been handling a supermarket-sized slab of raw chicken breast, there would almost certainly have been no viral video, no call to police. It wasn't raw meat, but the presence of the whole bird that stunned and offended: in the BQWSC podcast, one of the hosts even called the act of plucking "transgressive."

In urban Canada, we are so divorced from our meat that the sight of it whole can disturb. We prefer it to be denuded of its body, fully insulated from the truth of its source. Mulched into paste (or should I say "glop?") and reconstituted into more ambiguous forms, or sliced beyond recognition: no longer a chicken, just a nugget. No longer the corpse of a cow, just a pat of ground beef. This is more comfortable to us, than an authentic connection to animals, and land.

Maybe we'd do well for to reckon with that. ("Warning," CTV Montreal added in a disclaimer. "Some may find the following video disturbing.")

So here we are, at the silly extreme, where an eager young Inuk woman on the Metro was literally policed for not playing along with this arbitrary boundary between what is food, and what is fowl. "I couldn't believe that anyone would make a big deal out of it," David wrote, on Facebook. "But I guess now I say thank you to everyone who made a big deal about it, because a lot of people got to see our culture."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 D2

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