Scores of academics and scientists descend on the territories each year to poke, probe, and proselytise. It’s not all the stuff of dry dissertations. Some of it is weird. All of it is wonderful. This issue, Up Here is documenting some of the wildest research happening in the North.
A community consultation was being put together in the North, as often happens. The organizers wanted to order KFC, but they didn’t want a $2,000 bill for fast food on their books.
“So they funnelled the money through another organization,” says Audrey Giles, an applied cultural anthropologist with the University of Ottawa. “The sense of shame about it…but also, knowing that if we’re going to have a community consultation, we’ve got to have KFC.”
When KFC shut down in Yellowknife three years ago, the city lost a fast-food outlet. The North lost something more resonant. Giles, along with fellow researchers Meghan Lynch, Lauren A. Brooks-Cleator, and M. Hope Rumford, wanted to examine that cultural significance to better understand the social connection between communities and their favourite franchise restaurants.
“The emotional distress and outpouring of love for this place was, to me, really unusual,” says Giles. “That somebody is driving 1,400 kilometres, round trip, to get KFC—I mean, this to me really says there is something interesting going on here.”
The American chain started frying chicken in Yellowknife in 1968, decades before other big name franchises like McDonalds came North. As such, it held a special place in the hearts of Northerners. News of the KFC’s closure blew up the NWT internet as Northerners shared memories of chicken-run road trips, Kentucky-catered weddings, and carry-on buckets.
“You couldn’t travel without the smell of it permeating any plane you were on,” says Giles, who’s been in and out of the North doing research since the late ’90s.
For insight, the researchers turned to the last place anyone would go for coherent thought and informed opinions—internet comment sections.
“That’s where the interesting human dimension lies,” says Lynch, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. “You’re not getting these sort of planned-out responses, or the bias of a researcher asking you, ‘What do you think about KFC closing?’”
People know how they’re supposed to answer that question. Fast food is supposed to be shameful in North American culture; its loss a net gain for public health. But for those who actually live in the NWT, says Lynch, it wasn’t about nutrition. It was the sense of belonging, the social identity KFC offered that produced such an outpour of emotion.
Researchers need to understand these social ties if messaging about healthy food choices is going to be effective, says Lynch. Normally, calories and nutritional factors are given top priority. As if those are the only things people consider when eating out.
“You couldn’t just stick in another restaurant and have that,” she says about KFC's place in the hearts of Northerners. “It really was this sense of mourning and loss.”
With rumours now circulating of the franchise’s rebirth, Giles says she’s just happy the team were able to publish this “somewhat tongue-in-cheek” chicken study during the narrow drive-thru window of time before KFC returns to Yellowknife.
“Much as there are buckets of chicken, this was a bucket-list paper that I wanted to write.”