A motion calling for urgent reform to the Nutrition North Canada food subsidy program was defeated in Parliament last week.
The NDP-led motion, first proposed in March by Northwest Territories MP Dennis Bevington, called for five “immediate” reforms to the federal food subsidy program, including the addition of 46 remote communities currently ineligible for the program.
The motion was defeated on June 8 by a margin of 148 to 125. Conservative Party MPs accounted for all but one counter-vote, which came from Independent MP James Lunney. One hundred per cent of NDP, Liberal and Bloc MPs present at the session supported the motion, as did the five remaining Independent MPs.
Bevington’s proposal called for a full review of Nutrition North with “northern residents as full partners,” and reworking program eligibility criteria based on “real circumstances” of communities, among other priorities.
Yet it was the eligibility of fly-in Northern communities — at first totalling 50, later reduced to 46 — that became a focal point of a June 4 parliamentary debate.
In that session, Bevington criticized what he deemed Nutrition North’s “poorly thought-out community eligibility criteria.”
“They cannot expect that using single criteria, the freight rate, and whether they were in the program before, is good enough to determine how a community should receive the subsidy,” he said.
Several Conservative Party MPs disputed the premise that the program needed the proposed reforms.
Conservative MP Mark Strahl, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC), pointed to cost savings between 2011 and 2014. “Since the implementation of Nutrition North, the volume of healthy food shipped to northern communities has increased by 25 per cent, and the cost of a food basket for a family of four has dropped by $137 a month.”
“I do not believe these statements describe a program that is in need of a major overhaul,” he said.
Other Conservative MPs questioned the combination of the motion’s various reforms. “Is it a good program that we should add 50 communities to or is it not?” asked Yukon MP Ryan Leef, adding “[The NDP] do not have a coherent position.”
Bevington pointed to the motion’s second proposed action as a response. “A comprehensive review would answer the question of whether the program is running well, whether it needs to add 50 communities, or whether it is not running well,” he said.
Conservative MPs also reiterated the government’s efforts to increase transparency and management, pointing to new auditing processes, compliance reviews and a Northern-based Advisory Council.
Yet Liberal MP Yvonne Jones joined NDP voices in critiquing these efforts, saying “I would ask why the Department of Aboriginal Affairs is currently paying an Ottawa-based consulting firm to work in Ottawa to develop more made-in-Ottawa solutions to revamp the Nutrition North program?”
“The member might be talking about designing a program,” responded Strahl, “but community consultations are taking place in the North, being led by Northerners.”
Reached for comment after the vote, Bevington said he’d continue advocating for the reforms prioritized in the motion. “These are things that have to be done,” he said. “However, the motion revealed the issues within the program. That was part of the objective.”
“Take the food basket system. The auditor general discredited that, yet the government kept using it in the debate. They say they agree with the report, yet continue to use the same mode of analysis that the Auditor General deems inadequate.”
An AANDC spokesperson, meanwhile, pointed to a table of recent actions undertaken in response to the auditor general’s report, including most recently new point of sale terminals that display to customers the exact figure of the subsidy passed on to them.
“AANDC is investing over $133 million towards retail subsidies to ensure continued access to healthy foods for Northerners,” further read a statement from Minister of AANDC Bernard Valcourt.
At least one food security advocate, Taye Newman, founder of the site Feeding Nunavut, which provides an online directory of food programs, admitted to being “frustrated” by the results so far. From her vantage point, she said, “Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq seems to have a full agenda, but I have not seen any evidence that the Nutrition North program is part of that agenda.”
“The fact that the motion was defeated in the House suggests that the government may have changed their position on the auditor general report findings,” she added. “This should not be a political issue. This should be a human rights issue.”
Bevington said he hoped the proposal would provide a measure of accountability to the program. “We now have a way of measuring progress that this government would make in the next few months around rectifying the situation for the 50 communities not included.”
According to the Northwest Territories MP, however, fundamental questions still lie at the heart of the program’s funding model.
“A complete analysis is needed to see what is the best way to provide a subsidy,” he said. “The government didn’t do an analysis: how did they choose this particular means?
Joshua Davidson works as a communications consultant in Montréal. He also teaches and recently launched Medium Rare: a podcast on issues at the intersection of media and food. Full disclosure: he has previously worked on a freelance basis for Food Secure Canada.