From the Magazine Politics

Carolyn Bennett on Nutrition North

The Hon. Carolyn Bennett was sworn in today as Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. In 2012, she wrote in Northern Public Affairs about the failure of the Conservative government’s Nutrition North program to ensure food security across Arctic Canada. From our archives, here is Bennett’s piece “Missing the Mark”, published in the Volume 1, Issue 2 of the magazine.

Northerners have been clear. Before they had food and now they are hungry. We will never tackle serious national issues like food insecurity until the government accepts there is a problem in the first place.

The Conservative government is turning its back on an estimated 800,000 Canadian households that struggle to put nutritious food on the table. Instead, they are attacking those who raise legitimate concerns about food insecurity. Although this “shoot the messenger” approach seems to be the Conservative’s standard response to every issue, it does nothing for the 2-3 million men, women and children across the country who are struggling to meet their nutritional needs.

Canada has a serious food insecurity problem; in Northern communities, some estimates put it as high as 79 per cent, or eight out of ten people without sufficient food. Seventy per cent of Inuit preschoolers live in homes where there is not enough food and the government program, Nutrition North Canada (NNC), which is supposed to deal with the situation, has failed.

In remote and Northern communities across Canada – including Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Quebec and Labrador — the subsidies provided to retailers through NNC have not been passed on to consumers. In many cases NNC has dramatically increased the cost of essential household goods, including infant care products.

In June, Inuit people were protesting in the streets in communities across the North. The Facebook site Feeding My Family has unprecedented support. I raised Northern food insecurity in Question Period on June 11th and, in the absence of an acceptable answer, again on June 12th. I also travelled to Iqaluit during the last week of June to see the situation for myself. Unfortunately this government’s approach is to deny, deny, deny. It is insistent on making policies based on ideology instead of evidence and is intransigent in admitting that their program is a failure.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food toured Canada last spring and reported, “very desperate conditions and people who are in extremely dire straits.” He raised specific concerns regarding Aboriginal peoples including the high cost of food in the North and the effectiveness of NNC.

The callous Conservative response was to deny the problem and to attack the credibility of the Rapporteur. Minister Jason Kenney lectured “that the UN should focus on development in countries where people are starving.” Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq went so far as to call the Rapporteur “ill-informed” and “patronizing” for raising these legitimate issues. Speaking of Canadians in the North, she argued that, “We continue to live off the land, eat the seal meat, eat the polar bear meat and whatnot.” She then tried to deflect attention from the Conservative government’s inaction on food security by raising the seal hunt. Both the Liberal Party and I support the seal hunt, but the fact remains Northerners are still suffering from food shortages. What this government is not addressing is the fact that the high cost of hunting is putting that option out of reach for many Northerners. As former Member of Parliament Jack Anawak eloquently explained, people often cannot afford the snowmobiles, boats, gas and ammunition needed to hunt for their country foods.

Then ITK President Mary Simon was crystal clear, “There is food insecurity in the North.” She went on to comment specifically on Minister Aglukkaq’s denial of the problem, “You know, I haven’t talked to her so I am not sure why the position was that, because we did work with the regions in the North and we did a report for the Rapporteur and we met with him. So he has firsthand information on the situation as it stands right now in the Arctic.”

Grand Chief Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said, “I’ve never seen the minister come to Manitoba to visit the remote communities that I was able to take the Rapporteur to. I would trust the observation of the Rapporteur ahead of the health minister at this time.” Further, the AFN provided a submission to the Rapporteur advocating for right to food priorities for First Nations in Canada, including the need to develop and implement a National Food Policy reflective of First Nation traditions and values.

On May 16, the Government of Nunavut also stepped up to address the food insecurity issue announcing its plan to create a food security coalition to ensure people are fed properly. Local initiatives are trying to fill the federal void, but where is the federal Conservative government?

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The Conservative government needs to admit the serious problems of food insecurity in Canada. This issue must move beyond the hyper partisan PMO talking points and requires real leadership demonstrated through working collaboratively with Aboriginal communities, provincial and territorial governments, food producers, community groups and experts to develop and implement a comprehensive Food Policy for Canadians.

So where do we go from here?

Northern sovereignty must include more than military deployments, it must also deal with the health and welfare of the people who live there. Northern food security cannot be addressed in the absence of dealing with the overall cost of living in the North. This must not only include investments in basic needs like education, housing and health, but also the infrastructure that is required to support a growing population and economy. To make these investments strategically, we need to restore the Long-Form census.

As Elisapee Sheutiapik, the former mayor of Iqaluit, told the industry committee during the hearings, “to keep Canada strong, we need to know how the country is changing, where people live, work, and raise their families. This census helps us do that.” She explained that poverty, hidden homelessness and education are serious challenges for people of the North. She explained that mere “head counts” will never reveal the extent of the challenges.

There also remain critical gaps in terms of transportation, such as the planned development of a deep water port in Nanisivik that has been scrapped in favour of a part-time, summer-only fuelling station. Iqaluit remains without a deep water port and Nunavut Premier Aariak recently made it clear that the lack of ports and roads connecting their communities to each other and to the south is constraining economic and social development. She has also pointed out that the thriving fishing industry in Nunavut is forced to offload their catch in Greenland because of the lack of port infrastructure. These infrastructure gaps are relevant to both food prices and the broader cost of Northern living and Liberals would address these with action rather than rhetoric.

When the Conservative’s replaced the Food Mail Program with NNC, they did so believing that the free market would solve all the issues that existed under the old system. While the Conservatives superficially consulted with Northerners, they ignored their input. Rather than subsidizing the shipping costs of food using Canada Post, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada now subsidizes Northern retailers and southern food suppliers directly, allowing them to make their own arrangements with air carriers to fly in perishable food.

The Conservatives appear to be trusting that trickledown economics will ensure the savings are passed on to Northerners. The problem is that there is a lack of price monitoring, accountability and transparency under NNC. As pointed out by public officials who managed the former Food Mail Program, “payments are made to retailers and shippers based on claims submitted to a contracted claims processor (unidentified in any public documents at an undisclosed administrative cost).” Further, the public has no information on what retailers’ transportation costs are before or after claiming the subsidy. We must overhaul how the subsidy is paid to retailers and ensure that it is much more transparent. There are also no food quality inspections at the point of shipment.While private shippers may still have a role to play in a new system, the government must ensure the quality of the subsidized food that is shipped North. We need to resume food price surveys in isolated Northern communities and southern supply centres.

We now have no reliable independent evidence to access the current program’s impact on food prices. Decisions on food security in the North must be based on evidence rather than ideology and incorporate the views of Northerners in a way that is transparent to the public. Further, any food security policy for the North must augment access to country foods and ensure that children don’t lose their palate for traditional foods.

We look forward to working with Northerners to develop a comprehensive platform for the North. Solutions developed by Northerners for Northerners.


The Hon. Carolyn Bennett, M.P., M.D. is the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, served as Liberal Critic for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and is the Member of Parliament for Toronto-St. Paul’s.

Photo credits: Liberal Party of Canada; Parliament of Canada.

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