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A price tag lists the retail price and the subsidy calculations on a four-litre jug of milk at a grocery store in Iqaluit (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A price tag lists the retail price and the subsidy calculations on a four-litre jug of milk at a grocery store in Iqaluit (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Hill and Fitzgerald

Why northerners’ unhappiness with food program will factor into election Add to ...

Fred Hill managed the Food Mail Program in different capacities at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada from 1991 until 2010, in collaboration with Michael Fitzgerald between 2008 and 2010.

Northerners’ dissatisfaction with Nutrition North Canada (NNC) promises to be a major factor in the 2015 federal election in the 10 ridings with isolated northern communities served by this program – and those that would be served by it if eligibility had been based on due consideration of need and fairness. If Canadians remain as divided as recent polls suggest, it could even determine which party forms the government.

This program, announced in 2010 and implemented in 2011, is the Conservative government’s approach to addressing the high cost of food in Canada’s isolated northern communities. It replaced the transportation subsidy provided to Canada Post under the Food Mail Program with a subsidy paid to retailers and wholesalers.

At present, the Conservatives hold four of the NNC ridings. The most prominent is Nunavut, where the Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, recently attracted attention for her apparently cavalier attitude towards Northerners’ food insecurity. The Minister of Natural Resources, Greg Rickford, is the MP for Kenora in northern Ontario. The Conservatives are also incumbent in Yukon and northern Saskatchewan.

The Liberals currently hold the riding of Labrador. Peter Penashue won this riding for the Conservatives in 2011 by a very narrow margin, but resigned over election spending irregularities and was defeated by a wide margin in the 2013 by-election.

The NDP holds two of these ridings in Quebec, one in northern Ontario, one in northern Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories.

Auditor’s report

In November, the Auditor-General issued a scathing report on NNC that should be sending shivers down the spines of those Conservative MPs. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has accepted all of the Auditor-General’s recommendations, as the minister, Bernard Valcourt, proudly pointed out in the House of Commons. However, in an attempt to deflect attention away from the report’s embarrassing findings, just four days before its release the government announced increased funding for NNC ($11.3-million in 2014-15, $14.6-million in 2015-16, and a 5 per cent annual escalator thereafter).

Between 2007 and 2010, the government spent $2-million on a review of the Food Mail Program that resulted in its replacement by NNC, although the promised final report was never published. Presumably someone in a position of authority finally realized that no credible case for the decision could be made, and decided that talking points would have to suffice.

The department recently issued a request for proposals to “develop subsidy models…for the Nutrition North Canada Program.” If NNC has been the success that the minister repeatedly claims it is, why would the department need to develop new subsidy models?

Ministers gone

Three of the key ministers responsible for making and implementing the decision to replace Food Mail with NNC are gone: Jim Prentice, who announced the review of the Food Mail Program in November 2006; Jim Flaherty, who announced the death of Food Mail in his budget of March 2010; and Chuck Strahl, who announced the replacement program in May 2010.

Those who remain are John Duncan, aboriginal affairs minister by the time NNC came into effect in April 2011 – still in cabinet, but in a much lower-profile role as Chief Government Whip; Leona Aglukkaq, no longer minister of health as she was at the time this fateful decision was made; and, of course, the Prime Minister.

Gone, too, are the Aboriginal Affairs officials who conducted the flawed review of the Food Mail Program that supposedly informed this decision, shepherded it through the political approval process, and managed the transition and early implementation phases. That includes senior review staff, the first director of NNC, two directors-general, the assistant deputy minister and the deputy minister, all subsequently promoted within the public service.

2015 election

No doubt Conservative candidates, departmental officials and North West Company spokespersons will continue to trot out misleading statistics on food costs and volumes of shipments as evidence of how well NNC is working. The Auditor-General, however, found that “the department has not captured the information needed to manage the program or measure its success.”

Nutrition North Canada is one of the factors that will determine how the four Conservative MPs from these ridings fare in the 2015 election. We look forward to seeing what the opposition parties will propose in their platforms to address northern food security issues.

Northern voters will soon have an opportunity to question the wisdom of handing over close to $70-million per year in public funds to retailers and wholesalers, rather than to an accountable Crown corporation.

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