To recap: APTN films Rankin Inlet, Nunavut residents foraging for food at the dump, interviews deputy mayor Sam Tutanuak who says the federal food subsidy program is not helping Northerners who can’t afford increasingly expensive groceries. Then, Tutanuak says the hamlet got a call from the office of Nunavut MP and cabinet minister Leona Aglukkaq, asking him to apologize to her and the Conservatives, and assert the program is working. Later, Aglukkaq denies that request was made, reads a newspaper in the House of Commons while Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt takes questions from the opposition on the fiasco, before apologizing (sort of) for reading the paper. All the while, a conversation about food insecurity and a damning report from the auditor general is buried by the game of “He said... She said...”
No one can argue that the North doesn’t have a problem accessing affordable, healthy food. The simple fact that Nutrition North exists is the federal government’s acknowledgement of the issue, and the auditor general’s fall 2014 report provides hard proof that it’s not working.
Groceries have been expensive in the North ever since grocers established themselves here. It’s expensive to ship to the isolated, roadless communities, and there isn’t anything close to an economy of scale to make up for that—Nunavut’s population is fewer than 32,000, spread out over two million square kilometres.
In the 1960s, the federal government introduced the Food Mail program, which subsidized Canada Post to ship freight to remote retailers. But healthy food was still expensive (like $10 for two litres of milk in Taloyoak), and the program was being abused. Kenn Harper told Up Here Business in 2013 that he remembers people using the subsidy to bring up dishwashers and truck tires.
So the feds tried a different tack: subsidize the retailers. As of 2011, Nutrition North has provided $60 million per year to retailers to offset shipping costs. Yet price changes have been negligible (two kilograms of ground beef was spotted at $32 in Inukjuak, Nunavik in November). It seemed like $60 million, aimed at bringing down food costs, was disappearing into a black hole each year. So, after calls from local press and the territorial government to do so, Auditor General Michael Ferguson audited the program.
The report came out four days after the APTN special, three days before Aglukkaq’s alleged apology request made the news, and six days before the newspaper incident. Beneath the drama of those incidents and fallout from the Veterans Affairs revelations, the real Nutrition North story—both bad and good—was buried.
The bad news: A main Food Mail problem remained unaddressed with Nutrition North—the federal government has not put in place any mechanisms to ensure the subsidy is being relayed to consumers. The contribution agreements don’t require that retailers provide information on their profit margins to the feds, so the feds haven’t received this information. They’re left to just assume the subsidy has been passed on.
The good news: in its response to the report, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, which administers the program, agreed it should require that information. And it committed to amending the contribution agreements to require retailers pass on information about profit margins now, and over time. This means the program may finally have the checks and balances it’s always needed.
It’s just information, for now. But we might finally figure out where the money is going, and whether Nutrition North is worth fixing or if the solution to the North’s food insecurity needs a full reimagining. And this is where the “He said...She said...” comes into play. If the program’s broken, will the government have the humility to admit it doesn’t work? Any criticism of the policy thus far—whether from the media, the opposition, or the U.N. right-to-food envoy whom Aglukkaq publicly told off—has been viewed by the government as a personal attack, and responded to with emotional counter-attacks. It’s now up to Northerners to get hold of the facts and keep yelling them until someone in power listens.