Food Insecurity in Canada’s North: Ep 21
SYNOPSIS: According to the WHO, food security is “when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” In Canada’s north—which many Inuit and other Indigenous communities call home—food access and affordability are major issues, and government subsidies seem to only go so far. Madeleine Redfern, mayor of Iqaluit (Nunavut’s capital city), discusses her territory’s challenges with food insecurity and how the ‘Nutrition North’ subsidy program might be improved.
Rick Harp: Hello, I’m Rick Harp. This is MEDIA INDIGENA.
This week on the program, food insecurity in Canada’s north. According to the World Health Organization, food security is when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. In Canada, such access depends a lot on where you live, especially in the North.
For example, one report found that in Nunavut alone, just over one in three households are severely food insecure. Fishing, hunting, and gathering can obviously be part of the dietary picture, but they’ve come under pressure from a variety of economic, social, and environmental sources making imports of foods and other goods unavoidable, and very expensive.
Since the 1960s, the Canadian government’s response has been to subsidize these costs. Many question whether they work. Changes to the subsidy 5 years ago, part of the New Nutrition North program, have not quelled the criticism nor, it seems, the hunger of many northern families.
But whether the program works or not, the Liberal government has just announced its expansion to 37 new communities. Is this throwing good money after bad?
Here with her thoughts is Madeleine Redfern, the mayor of Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut. Mayor Redfern, welcome to MEDIA INDIGENA.
Mayor Madeleine Redfern: Thank you, Rick.
Harp: To help our listeners put the Nutrition North Program into context, I was hoping you could first walk us through the factors you feel have led northern peoples to become so food insecure in the first place.
Redfern: Well, that’s a very complicated and complex situation. It probably stems from the fact that we have simply not had a sustainable approach to developing the Arctic. And that we should be in a situation after, at least in the eastern part of the Arctic, almost a century to 50 years later, having more people with an education and training and skills, and ability to be employed and own their own housing, and not actually living in poverty, and therefore being food insecure.
Part of my work in the past was on the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. What we learned from that review, or that inquiry, is that the Canadian government’s approach to developing or administering and managing the Arctic has been to do the least amount as possible, poor planning, and, at the end of the day, not very good implementation of policies or programs. We’re still living the legacy of those past decisions, but we’re also doing very similar approaches now. We’re not learning.
Harp: Now, according to its website, Nutrition North Canada is a subsidy program that “works with stores across the north and food suppliers in southern Canada to ensure northerners have better access to perishable and nutritious food. The program subsidizes food items shipped by air to an eligible community as well as country or traditional food, commercially processed in the north.”
Now, relative to the need, how would rate the performance of Nutrition North?
Redfern: Well, there are definite mixed feelings about the success of the program. It does make food more affordable than without the subsidy. There’s been quite a bit of complaints that the sheer number of goods that are being subsidized may actually be counterproductive in making the [inaudible] number of foods more affordable.
So to give you an idea, the shopping list of eligible foods is very long. There’s been some suggestion that a smaller number of goods receiving a higher subsidy would make those food items more affordable, but also that some of the items that are being subsidized seem to be very southern focused. There’s quite a lot of northerners who have said that there isn’t enough recognition or value on traditional or country foods, and the nutritious value as a result. Our local food economy is one of the most nutritious, and ideally should be very accessible, and is not getting enough support.
So, whether it’s caribou, muskox, fish, whale, seals, you know… a hunter in our community usually feeds up to 7 families. It is the most nutritious food that we should have greater access to, but too many of our hunters simply can’t afford to even get out on the land because the equipment is so expensive, as well as the gas and the oil and ammunition, and other goods associated with hunting.
When it says that the program subsidizes commercially-processed traditional foods, it cuts out all the hunters in our community. We only have commercial food processing of country foods in the three regional centres: that’s Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, and Cambridge Bay. Yet there’s 25 communities. So, it’s a big problem.
Harp: I understand under the previous subsidy, that included subsidies to hunters as well. Is that correct?
Redfern: The previous Food Mail program did. It also subsidized the cost of transporting equipment that would be used for hunting. Ideally, there needs to be better coordination between the federal government, territorial government, and the Inuit organizations. NTI—Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated—did have an Inuit hunter support program, which actually, unfortunately, has been suspended over a year ago, as they were going to review and revise that program. The loss of the hunter support program actually exacerbated food insecurity, exactly the time when we needed more support for our hunters.
So, I think we need to look at beyond just the Nutrition North Program; that’s one component of being able to assist our people in getting food. The fact is, that more and more people are food insecure, 17 years after the creation of this territory, or 23 years after signing the land claim agreement. And so, we really do need to look at how we use our limited resources to help those who need it the most.
I would love to see every school in Nunavut have a breakfast or a lunch program. I mean, literally, when you know that 7 out of 10 Nunavut pre-school children are food insecure, and that those not getting the nutrition that you need in those early development years, it’s not only detrimental to that child then, but it has life-long negative effects. We’ve got to address that.
Harp: In talking about the Nutrition North program, many have raised flags, including the Auditor General back in 2014, about the transparency and accountability of Nutrition North subsidies. In a nutshell, what are those concerns about?
Redfern: Well, initially, people were concerned that the subsidy wasn’t being passed on. As a result, I know the Nutrition North program worked with the retailers to develop software programs at the tills or in the system that now demonstrate that the saving is being passed on. So when I look at my grocery receipt, you can see how much eggs are, and what the subsidy is, and therefore see that saving being passed right on to the customer.
That level of transparency is good; however, it cost quite a lot of money to implement that program, money much needed, actually, to offset the cost of food. There are trade-offs in developing a relatively new program and attempting to ensure that those subsidies are passed on.
Harp: Now, another factor that I’ve heard identified is that Nutrition North is a market-based model, a competition-based program. And obviously in bigger, urban cities there are lots of stores competing for people’s dollar when it comes to food and other goods. What’s the state of competition amongst stores in the hamlets and communities of Nunavut?
Redfern: Well, in most of our communities, there will be two stores, either the Northern or the Arctic Co-operatives. Some communities, there’s only one store. And so, you don’t even have the competition of two.
We’ve also heard that the much smaller, individual-owned, mom-and-pop stores have struggled to get on the Nutrition North subsidy retail list. The paperwork is quite onerous, it’s also eliminated many of the southern-based companies that had been previously eligible under the food program, that used to ship food to the north and receive that subsidy. Or individuals who were able to purchase their food wherever they wanted, and applied and sought and got the subsidy directly from the government by producing their receipts.
I think one of the biggest criticisms of the Nutrition North program, at least in the early days when it was introduced, is that there hadn’t been enough good policy analysis and program development to look at, how does the federal government maximize the subsidy to our benefit? I think that there had been a couple of little tweaks that had been done early on, and then, the then-Conservative government said, we’re not changing or tweaking the program anymore.
It’s important that, in this consultation phase, that all those factors, or analysis that should have been done early on, is done properly now, but not done either in isolation. We really do need to look at what were the good things under the Food Mail program, what are the good things under the Nutrition North program, but also what are the problems, what have been the unintended consequences. And maybe also, as I said, to look at how we more broadly deal with the issue of poverty and food insecurity beyond just subsidized food.
Harp: Now, in researching this topic, I’ve become alert to what goes on in Greenland, which is not only the world’s biggest island, at 2.1 million square kilometers, basically Alaska and California combined. At 56,500 inhabitants, it’s got the world’s lowest number of people per square kilometre.
There’s a state-owned company in Greenland called KNI, which supplies all of Greenland with groceries, consumer goods, and fuels. And according to its website, kni.gl, “Some parts of [its] activities cannot be carried out on commercial and market terms. Consequently, a service contract has been entered into with the Government of Greenland for payment of these tasks for society … [where] KNI has assumed an obligation to operate shops in villages and small towns where retail and wholesale services cannot be maintained on a profitable basis.”
What’s preventing something like that from being tried in Nunavut and beyond?
Redfern: That’s a very good observation. The challenge that I find is that, for the most part, Canada takes a very different approach to its Arctic policies, program design, or implementation. The reality is that Denmark has a more socialist approach, and not just with respect to this area, which is food, but also with respect to infrastructure.
Harp: Just for our listeners who don’t understand the relationship between Denmark and Greenland, can you quickly explain that?
Redfern: Well, Greenland is a colony of Denmark, and in the last decade or so has achieved what they have called home rule, a certain amount of political independence. Denmark still plays a crucial role. It’s not a territory, in the same sense that either Yukon or Northwest Territories, or Nunavut is. We’re much more geographically connected and closer to our country, but a certain amount of recognition and deference is given to Greenlanders.
It’s very hard to necessarily compare the two systems. As I said, Denmark tends to have a more socialist approach. Yes, they do pay higher taxes, but they also have provided greater subsidies and support to Greenland than possibly Canada has to its three northern territories.
Our Canadian government to date has not been inclined to take that approach. It tends to provide subsidies in other mechanisms which are not necessarily the most beneficial for those who are intended to benefit from the program. It’s a worthwhile observation, and something that I think is worth further investigation, but it requires a completely different mindset and approach to dealing with Arctic policy development and design of programs such as Nutrition North.
Harp: Just to follow up on that point a little bit, from what I understand, KNI will pursue a competitive model where competition exists. As we discussed, the population of a lot of northern communities effectively only allows at best an oligopoly, or one or two stores. Why would the government of Canada persist with a model utterly grounded in competition?
Redfern: Well, it’s as I said, it is something that is researching and understanding and analyzing. It’s not the usual approach that our government has taken. It would actually be quite radical to consider the Greenlandic Danish model, but if it works it’s something that is worth reviewing and considering. We have a tendency in Canada to simply do the way that our society or marketplace has dictated, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the right approach.
I’ve often suggested that the Canadian government or our territorial governments look to our other Arctic nations for potential other models or program reviews because there’s actually way more similarities and potential benefits from a model or a program that has worked out for the Arctic than something that simply doesn’t exist in southern Canada, and doesn’t need to exist in southern Canada.
Harp: From what I’ve been able to gather, Nutrition North is understood to be at best a short-term fix, and I guess even the government can see that there’s tinkering right now, subject to consultation. As others have noted, ultimately we need to get at the root causes of food insecurity, and not just deal with its symptoms. In your opinion, what needs to concretely change for that to happen in order for a more made-in-Nunavut solution?
Redfern: We really do need to recognize that the solution to food insecurity in the north is to develop local capacity, and for our communities to have access to our resources so that we can develop them. We can save the Arctic by sustainable development. All one has to also do is look at who has access to our resources. I mean, only in even the last week or so, there’s been some national and local coverage of the fact that Nunavut does not receive anywhere near the majority of its quotas for fish or shrimp. Which is shocking given the high levels of poverty and food insecurity. A significant number of those new fishing quotas were developed and assigned to southern Atlantic interests even before the creation of our territory. And then, the next double whammy was, when attempting to get some of our own fish and shrimp quota, was being told by the federal government well, you don’t have sufficiently stable or developed fisheries to warrant any quota.
But the only way that you can actually develop a fishery industry is to have access to that quota; even if at the beginning you have to sell it, or to enter into partnership with other entities, so that we have the ability to get people trained, and to buy those boats, or to lease them, and all the associated infrastructure gear—ultimately, to develop a sustainable and vibrant economy. Whether it is fisheries or any other local resources that exists within our territory. One could ascertain that possibly it’s the federal government giving access to our resources to southern jurisdictions, either for political reasons or economic reasons. You’d really have to do a further analysis to that, but we believe that the principle of adjacency in fisheries meant that we would receive 90 per cent plus of our fish resources, by practice elsewhere in southern Canada, whether in the Atlantic or in the Pacific regions.
That’s why we were so thankful at one point to have our Nunavut MP be the Fisheries and Oceans minister. We thought we might finally have an Indigenous minister that recognized that there are more than the Atlantic and Pacific regions that have the fisheries. Our fisheries is relatively new, and we need to be able to develop that area of economy for our benefit, and for the benefit of Canada.
It seems a bit circular and some what counter-intuitive that our fisheries quota is given to southern interests while at the same time, the federal government is pumping money into Nutrition North program for food subsidies. As I said, the long term solution really is to ensure that we have good, sustainable development in the Arctic so that people actually have the education, the jobs, and the income to be able to feed themselves.
Harp: Mayor Redfern, thank you very much for your time.
Redfern: Okay, well thank you, Rick.
Harp: Take care.
Redfern: Take care, bye.
Rick: That’s Madeleine Redfern, the mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut. You can find her on Twitter @madinuk, where the ‘mad’ stands for Madeleine.
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