Joshua Gladstone is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University and co-founder of Northern Public Affairs.
As Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq flipped casually through her newspaper in Parliament recently, she did so in the face of deep anger and frustration over her woeful handling of northern Canada’s food security crisis.
Southern Canadians should be distressed, too. Research has shown that 70 per cent of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes, a reality that is as much a national disgrace as it is a troubling indicator of our collective disregard for the basic human rights of our fellow citizens.
Disturbing reports of food insecurity in Inuit communities going back at least as far as the early 1990s show that problems of hunger and malnutrition are enduring. Even more disturbing are the two manifestations of the same problem today: people scavenging at landfills and incoherent food security policy.
The Nutrition North program is the Conservative government’s solution to the high cost of store-bought food in the North. Other causes of food insecurity, including the impacts of climate change on the Inuit food system and the high cost of harvesting country food, are conspicuously absent from the government’s plans.
This is not as it should be. A great many northerners continue to combine employment and harvesting in order to access nutritious country food, but research has shown that changing ice conditions resulting from climate change reduce the hunting season and make spending time on the land more risky.
Meanwhile, the cost of harvesting remains prohibitive for many vulnerable families due to high equipment costs and low fur prices.
And so, if Nutrition North worked the way it should, it would still only go part way to addressing the complex problem of food insecurity in the North.
Sadly, Nutrition North is failing.
When it replaced the old Food Mail program in 2011, Nutrition North was supposed to reduce the high cost of perishable food in Canada’s northern communities by subsidizing retailers. The program put an end to freight subsidies and instead counted on retailers to pass the subsidies on to consumers.
But a recent report by the Auditor General concluded that the federal government lacked the information it needed to assess whether subsidies were being passed on by retailers, and therefore whether the $59-million program was working.
Alarmingly, the same problem was identified by northern legislators in early 2012 and emphasized later that year by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, whose report was viciously criticized by federal ministers.
How is the federal government handling these serious issues?
Before the Auditor-General’s report was announced, the Tories decided to increase the program budget by $11-million annually with a 5 per cent escalator. That’s an extra $11-million that will go unaccounted under current arrangements.
In Parliament, Ms. Aglukkaq defended the program and insisted that food security is the government’s top priority. Along the way she reportedly threatened Rankin Inlet’s Deputy Mayor, Sam Tutanuak, with a lawsuit for saying that high grocery prices forced people to scavenge for food at the local dump.
But, instead of working to convince Canadians of the merits of the Conservative plan, she decided to read the paper.
And with that, she told the rest of Canada it was not its problem.
We must not listen. Instead, we must demand the government develop a robust, multidimensional strategy to address food insecurity in the North that pays particular attention to the Inuit food system.
The Nunavut Harvesters Support Income Trust, for example, has provided more than $2-million annually to Nunavut harvesters for the equipment they need to hunt, fish and trap. The program has also financed projects that teach survival skills, harvesting knowledge, and sewing techniques – projects that reduce reliance on expensive search and rescue programs and other government transfers.
While similar programs in northern Quebec are fully funded through the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Inuit in Nunavut were unsuccessful in their bid to have a similar program established under their land claim.
Instead, their program was set up as a charitable trust in 1993. Like most market instruments, this one suffered badly during the economic crisis of 2008 and was suspended this year so that trustees could decide what to do with the remaining capital.
Robust program improvements are needed here and elsewhere. If federal food security policy remains as it is – narrowly focused and austere – Canadians will remain complicit in the grievous mistreatment of thousands of northerners.
Ms. Aglukkaq, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt and their Cabinet colleagues have an opportunity to take real action to address food insecurity in the North, and in doing so reduce the deleterious health and social effects that are known to come with it.
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