Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says that when she tore a strip off a UN right-to-food envoy last week, she never meant to imply there were no hunger problems in the North.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Ms. Aglukkaq said there are indeed serious poverty challenges in her home region.
But she said she resents being told how to fix things by an outsider who has no first-hand knowledge of the North and who comes from a country that opposes the seal hunt.
“I never said that there is no hunger issue for aboriginal people,” Ms. Aglukkaq said in a phone interview from Geneva where she was attending global health discussions. “I come from there, I see it first-hand.
“But I also see first-hand the impact from out of Canada, from out of the North, putting forward broad recommendations that are not helpful, that don’t recognize that we as aboriginal people continue to depend on the land for our food.”
She says food security is best addressed by improving prospects for jobs and the economy of the North.
Last week, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, presented his findings from a trip across Canada, saying he had “extremely severe” concerns about the ability of aboriginal people and families on social assistance to afford the food they need to stay healthy.
He criticized the government’s Nutrition North food subsidy program as benefiting retailers more than consumers. He also reflected aboriginal communities’ concerns that federal policies have eroded their control of the land and natural resources.
He made no mention of campaigns to stop the seal hunt.
Even a submission from the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Institute didn’t mention the environmentalist campaign.
Instead, that submission emphasized the need for government to invest in hunting and traditional knowledge, strengthen food subsidies and boost the regional economy — recommendations reflected in Mr. De Schutter’s preliminary report.
When Mr. De Schutter wrapped up his 11-day trip last week, several cabinet ministers blasted him, including Ms. Aglukkaq, who said food security in the North is about fighting environmentalists lobbying to cut off access to hunting traditional foods.
Ms. Aglukkaq called him “ill-informed” and “patronizing,” since he made recommendations about the North without setting foot there.
She said that instead of targeting Ottawa, Mr. De Schutter should be looking at environmentalists who are trying to cut off Inuit access to the seal hunt, polar bears and fish.
“It’s about fighting environmentalists that try to put a stop to our way of life, of hunting to provide for our families,” she said.
Her comments prompted critics to ask whether Ottawa was denying widespread poverty and food insecurity in the North.
In her interview this week, Ms. Aglukkaq said that for Mr. De Schutter to truly understand food security in the North, he needs to look well beyond the grocery store to see how the traditional reliance on hunting is under pressure.
“Hunting is our way of life. The very country he comes from does not recognize the seal hunt, and in fact opposes the seal hunt,” the minister said.
“When you’re dealing with activist groups outside of your region that try to put a stop to your access to food, it’s very personal, and it’s something that needs to be clearly understood. We are a product of our environment, and that piece of it all is clearly not addressed.”
Mr. De Schutter is from Belgium, which spearheaded a ban on Canadian seal products. However, traditional aboriginal sealing is excluded from the European ban.
Ms. Aglukkaq said she would welcome the envoy back so that she could take him to the North to see first-hand how the seal hunt works.
The Inuit submission to the UN envoy pointed to government-funded research that shows that 68.8 per cent of adults in Nunavut do not have secure access to food — six times higher than the Canadian average. The submission points out that the research does not properly take into account access to country foods.
“You don’t need to be a Canadian citizen to see the horrific effects of poverty (created by federal policy) on First Nations,” commented Pam Palmater, the chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“The Conservatives can’t have it both ways. They can’t ignore poverty — and arguably maintain it through their policies — and then critique those who see its devastating effects and stand up against it.”