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Green energy activist Daniel T'Seleie, who believes northern Canada could improve its energy security by investing in more solar panels, is pictured outside Bechoko, Northwest Territories in this September 30, 2015 file photo. T'seleie, an indigenous activist in the far north, is campaigning to help his people wean themselves from a worrying dependence on imported fuel and food, recover old traditions and win greater autonomy from the Canadian government. In a region with nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer, one way to help meet his goals seems obvious: more solar power. (STAFF/REUTERS)
Green energy activist Daniel T'Seleie, who believes northern Canada could improve its energy security by investing in more solar panels, is pictured outside Bechoko, Northwest Territories in this September 30, 2015 file photo. T'seleie, an indigenous activist in the far north, is campaigning to help his people wean themselves from a worrying dependence on imported fuel and food, recover old traditions and win greater autonomy from the Canadian government. In a region with nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer, one way to help meet his goals seems obvious: more solar power. (STAFF/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

When it’s too costly even to be poor Add to ...

Two weeks ago the gargantuan cruise ship Crystal Serenity dropped anchor near Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and disgorged hundreds of passengers into the tiny hamlet.

They picked up soapstone sculptures, soaked in a little Inuit culture, and in some cases, a daily newspaper reported, popped into the local food market to gawp at prices.

That’s right, inflated grocery costs in Canada’s North have become a tourist attraction. It’s not uncommon to pay $9 for a box of cereal or $24 for a kilo of bell peppers.

Indeed, a new study shows that feeding a northern family of four costs twice as much as further south. In some cases the food budget is gobbling up fully half of disposable family income.

There is no cheap and convenient way to get fresh vegetables, meat and staples to many parts of the north; if there’s no road or rail line, flying becomes the only option and planes are expensive.

But the federal government has a subsidy program to offset some of the costs of bringing a litre of milk to a store shelf north of the tree-line.

In 2014, the Auditor-General took a look at it, found the $60-million program lacking, and concluded that common sense wasn’t being used for actual need.

The Aboriginal Affairs department promised action, but clearly more needs to be done. The advocacy group Food Secure Canada recently partnered with researchers from a quartet of Canadian universities to take a snapshot of food prices in three remote Ontario reserve communities.

They found food insecurity is rampant; people are being gouged by retail monopolies; not enough communities meet eligibility requirements; and there is deficient transparency in terms of data collection. The good news is that this should be relatively easy to fix, and the current federal cabinet is clearly well-intentioned when it comes to aboriginal policy.

All that’s needed now is for some of that political will to be directed at the problem. If we are going to incur the considerable expense of subsidizing life in remote northern communities – and evidently we are – let us at least do a competent and effective job of it.

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