On a frigid night in the Arctic, as the full moon slips behind a veil of ice crystals, an Inuit woman named Leesee Papatsie slides her shopping cart into a supermarket on a singular mission. She dodges the $12 boxes of Rice Krispies and $9 bottles of ketchup, and zeroes in on finding affordable food.
The outing is an exercise in sticker shock. In the meat fridge, two rib-eye steaks cost $26. Frozen chicken nuggets are nearly $23. The fresh strawberries are just $5, but five ear of corn are $8. Ms. Papatsie stops at the fridge lined with Tropicana orange juice, at $11.99 a pop. “I love those,” she says, eyeing the bright white-and-orange cartons, “but I’m not spending $12 on them.”
Ms. Papatsie is a slight, quiet-spoken mother of five who has become something of a trail-blazing rebel. Breaking with custom among the Inuit, she sparked a grassroots protest against crushing food prices that she says are hurting her people. In a land where families struggle to make it through long, sunless winters, frustrations have grown that federal programs have failed to deliver relief from high food prices. Even with only one child left at home, Ms. Papatsie spends $600 a week on groceries, and she says it’s not uncommon to open a refrigerator in Iqaluit and find ketchup and soy sauce but little else.
How expensive are groceries in Nunavut? Shop for yourself by checking the items in the grocery cart to find out. (Story continues below)
She created Feeding My Family on Facebook last year. Then followed an unprecedented sight in the territory: Inuit brandishing placards in revolt.
“It’s against our culture,” Ms. Papatsie says in her home in the Nunavut capital. “The Inuit never protested. Traditionally, for the Inuit to survive, everybody had to get along and we didn’t create friction. But if we don’t start saying something about high costs, then people will think it’s okay.”
The numbers suggest it’s not okay. Seven in 10 Inuit preschoolers in Nunavut live in homes without enough to eat. Median income for non-aboriginals in Nunavut is $86,600 a year; for the Inuit, it is $19,900. Despite chronic poverty and unemployment, families are expected to pay more to put food on their plates than other Canadians. A survey by the Nunavut government last year found food in the territory cost anywhere from 20 per cent more (for eggs) to 287 per cent more (for celery) than the rest of Canada.
High-priced food has long been a fact of life in the North, the result of transporting goods into remote communities spread over three time zones. In 2011, the Harper government introduced a new food-subsidy program called Nutrition North, replacing the long-established Food Mail program.
The old program subsidized shipments of most foods and some hygiene products. Nutrition North only covers “healthy” foods; items like crackers, frozen pizza or cream cheese get lower subsidies, while breaded chicken nuggets and non-perishables get no subsidies at all.
Nutrition North is market-driven, and subsidies go directly to Northern retailers, who are supposed to pass the savings on to shoppers. According to Nutrition North, overall prices for subsidized products have edged down 5.5 per cent. Nonetheless, eye-popping costs continue.
A bag of potatoes in Nunavut costs more than $10, according to the Nunavut government survey last year; Canadians elsewhere paid less than $5 for the exact same item. Onion prices were 233 per cent higher; bananas, 155 per cent higher. Flour is only partly subsidized through the program, though it’s a staple in traditional Inuit food like bannock; a 5-kilo bag was selling at the NorthMart for $25. Meanwhile, residents in Iqaluit saw some exotically new items in their grocery bins this year: passion fruit and coconuts, treats more closely associated with the tropics than the Arctic.
“The foods that are subsidized are not necessarily the ones that are suitable or most culturally relevant for people living in Nunavut,” said Allison MacRury, the Nunavut government nutritionist for the territory. A general subsidy would let people in the North “make their own choices,” she said. “That’s what people can do in the rest of Canada.”
John Amagoalik, dubbed the Father of Nunavut for his pivotal role in the creation of the territory in 1999, says the protests over high prices marked a shift for the Inuit, and he is not surprised they coalesced around food. “If you can’t feed your children, it becomes a desperate situation,” Mr. Amagoalik said. Part of the anger stems from confusion over whether new federal food-subsidy program is really resulting in lower prices. “As far as saving people money, we don’t know if that’s really happening. People are frustrated. I support [the protests] wholeheartedly.”
Nutrition North argues that it drew up its list of subsidized products with input from Northerners. It audits grocers to ensure subsidies are passed on to shoppers, and sales of healthy products are up, says the program’s director-general, Stephen Van Dine. But there’s no escaping the fact that everything from heating and transport to labour costs are higher in the North, impacting on food prices. “The cost of doing business in a remote setting is exorbitant,” Mr. Van Dine said in an interview.
Ms. Papatsie considers herself among the lucky ones. Both she and her husband, Bill Fennell, have good jobs with the Nunavut government. Still, Ms. Papatsie grew up in a large Inuit family that sometimes struggled to make ends meet. “As a kid, there were times when we were hungry – not starving, but not knowing what we would eat,” she says. “Today, I know there are people who are hungry.”
Auditor General Michael Ferguson agreed to requests last year to look into the effectiveness of the Nutrition North program; his findings are expected this fall. Romeo Saganash, an NDP northern Quebec MP who was among those who asked for the audit, says only a thorough examination will explain why high food costs endure in the North. “The program obviously doesn’t work,” he said.
Feeding my Family also plans to maintain momentum on its protests. Its Facebook page has drawn over 19,000 members, and its next goal is to reach out across the vast territory to set up a network of volunteer price-watchers.
“I want the Inuit to stand as one,” Ms. Papatsie says, “against the high cost of food.”
IN THE NORTH, EVERYTHING IS MORE EXPENSIVE
Running a retail business in the sparsely populated north is an expensive proposition. (In Nunavut for instance the majority of communities are less than 1,000 people.) Although stores can order stock in bulk by sea lift or winter road, many grocery items still have to be flown in. While the government provides a subsidy under the Nutrition North program for 103 remote communities, retailers don’t get any help with the high cost of labour, building and maintenance, electricity and fuel costs, all of which push prices up.
Labour: Nunavut has the highest minimum wage in the country at $11 an hour, and to retain workers most businesses have to pay even more.
Building and maintenance: For the big stock of items brought in by sea and ice road, buildings have to be made larger – and construction costs approximately three times the Canadian average. Add to this the price of repairs, which usually mean bringing technicians up from the South.
Electricity and costs: Heating and lighting costs more in Nunavut than anywhere else in Canada. In Toronto, commercial electricity rates range between 8.3 to 12.9 cents/kWh. In Iqaluit (which has the lowest rates in the territory) they are a staggering 43.42 cents/kWh.
First Air – Based in Kanata Ontario – The company (Bradley Air Services Ltd.) has the most extensive route of any airline in the North with connections in 30 communities in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. According to the company it carries 225,000 passengers and over 22 million kilograms of freight and mail a year. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Makivik Corp. A corporation set up as part of the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement that administers, distributes and invest the compensation money payable to Nunavik Inuit.
Calm Air International LP – Based in Thompson, Manitoba – It delivers groceries to at least four communities in Nunavut out of its base in Churchill. Calm Air makes deliveries on one flight to Kugaaruk (formally known as Pelly Bay) and Resolute Bay while another flight services Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay.
Cargojet Inc. – Based in Mississauga – It has a contract to ship groceries for Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. from Winnipeg to Iqaluit.
As of December 31, 2011, seven northern retailers and 26 southern suppliers were registered with NNC
The North West Company has 127 grocery stores across the Canadian North with 21 located in Nunavut.
Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. has 31 stores across both the NWT and Nunavut with a majority, 23 located in Nunavut.
There are also several other smaller stores in hotels and restaurants.
— Josh Kerr, Special to The Globe and Mail
Follow Ingrid Peritz on Twitter: