Photo: flickr/Grape Juice Girl

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The Canadian government’s food policy is having dire consequences for communities in Nunavut. Aside from being proof of further deterioration of government-Indigenous relations, Canada’s food policy has been an illustration of mismanagement and the consequences of what occurs when a program lacks transparency and denies power to those it claims to protect.

Historically, it’s always been more expensive to transport food to Nunavut (or any rural community) but costs of $55 for infant formula and $105 for a case of water is causing Canada’s Nutrition North Program to be seen as a failed attempt by the Canadian government to subsidize the food that gets to Nunavut.

Perhaps if the income of families in Nunavut could offset the abhorrent food costs, the discourse could be a bit more optimistic. However, most of the individuals in Nunavut identify as Inuit and income for Indigenous populations is significantly lower than non-Indigenous populations.

In 2005, StatsCan revealed that in Nunavut, income for Indigenous populations was approximately $9,000 less than the median income of $25,955 detailed by non-Indigenous populations. A study by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reported that across Canada, the numbers aren’t that different.

In 2006, the median income for Indigenous peoples was 30 per cent lower than the median income for non-Indigenous populations. A slightly larger difference existed in 2001 and in 1996 an even larger difference was found.

According the CCPA, at the rate that the disparities are “improving”, it would take 63 years for the income gap to be erased. 

Nutrition North largely misses mark

Established by Canada’s federal government, the northern food subsidy program began in the 1960s as the Food Mail program. In 2011, the Conservative government replaced it with Nutrition North, which is allotted $60 million annually.

After a 2014 report by the Auditor General of Canada outlined problems with the program — problems that Northern communities have been voicing for years — the same Conservative party that put the policy in place says they are now looking to change it.

The Conservatives have made minor changes, including adding $11.3 million to the 2014-2015 fiscal year, with a five per cent annual increase in the coming years.

However, as the AG report claims (and communities demand) that more needs to be done.  

The AG report outlines key issues with the Nutrition North Program including:

  • basing the eligibility requirement of participating communities on past use instead of current need

  • lack of compliance reviews to determine whether retailers pass on full subsidy to customers

  • failure to make more nutritious food affordable and set parameters for affordability

The current eligibility requirements can cause arbitrary discrepancies in subsidies. For example, the report cites two communities that are approximately 20 kilometres from each other, yet a similar distance from the nearest town. Calculated through transportation costs, one community is eligible for a subsidy of $1.60 per kilogram of food, while the other community is only eligible for $0.05 per kilogram.

This stark discrepancy illustrates the truly arbitrary nature of the Nutrition North Program’s eligibility requirements.

Also currently, there is insufficient information available to prove whether retailers in the North actually pass on the full subsidy to their customers. The report notes that, “[Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada] has not required that compliance reviews of northern retailers include analysis of profit margins in order to verify that the full subsidy is being passed on.”

This is a critical find. The Nutrition North Food Subsidy Program requires retailers to pass on the full subsidies to consumers and the fact that they are not sure proves that the structure of the program is inherently ineffectual. 

And, most strikingly, the report acknowledges that the Nutrition North Program has not met its original objective of making nutritious foods more affordable.

Beyond the aforementioned, this is due to the simple fact that the Department that composed the rules and regulations of the Nutrition North Program did not specify what “affordable” actually means in this context.

Food security significant election issue

Food security could definitely prove to be a significant issue this coming election. As such, many have taken the Conservatives’ decision to amend the program during an election year as a political tool rather than a meaningful policy change — and this is not going unnoticed by the NDP and Liberals. 

“We are facing a real food crisis in the North as a result of the failure of the Conservative’s Nutrition North program,” said Cree NDP MP Romeo Saganash last. “Instead of helping them, their own MP threatens a warning. It is shameful.”

Liberal Aboriginal Affairs Critic, Carolyn Bennett suggested that the proposed changes to Nutrition North are motivated by the upcoming federal election. “Northerners and experts have made it clear for years that Nutrition North is an abject failure, but the Harper government has stubbornly refused to listen to them until confronted with a scathing auditor general’s report and the prospect of facing the anger of northerners at the ballot box.”

While the Conservatives maintain that they’re “open to changing the food policy” reducing hunger and increasing food security are a matter of amending several existing systemic problems.

Relatives, activists and organizations have been trying to lend a hand to offset these food costs while the political discussion continues.

One Inuit family tried to send food to their relatives in the North, eventually landing a bill of $500 to ship $200 worth of groceries. The group Helping Our Northern Neighbours is inviting those who have the means to donate food once or choose to sponsor a family. Feeding My Family is actively trying to encourage grassroots involvement and also encouraging improvements in food quality through better inventory control.

Food Secure Canada has been working to get the issue of food accessibility on the political platform. The organization composed a response to the food crisis, which is outlined in a report titled Resetting The Table – A Peoples Food Policy for Canada.

But activists and organizations cleaning up the mess of this failed policy will only go so far. We need a concrete institutional overhaul in the upcoming election to affect real policy change.

Ashley Splawinski is a student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Ashley worked as a producer and host of News Now on CHRY 105.5 FM covering Canadian social, political, and environmental issues. You can visit her personal blog and follow her on twitter @asplawinski. 

Photo: flickr/Grape Juice Girl