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Northern Canada Grappling with Food Insecurity Despite Government Subsidies

“I make over $100,000 a year and I’m a finance officer, but it’s not even enough. Sometimes I wonder how the heck I’m going to get through the rest of the week,”  said Jo Ellen Pameolik, a concerned Iqaluit mother of four.

In an increasingly globalized world, it would be reasonable to assume that Canadians would have access to the same goods and services nationwide, right? Wrong.

Earlier this month, a Twitter post by Inuk artist Pitsiuulaq regarding the price of school supplies in Nunavut went viral. The post depicted twelve pencils, three highlighters and a notebook. The bill? $43 CAD. Many members of the online community were appalled when they learned of the disparities between Northern and Southern Canadians’  lives. Concerns about the cost of living in Canada arose as people across the country frantically shared the post, but for many, this wasn’t new.

In Short: Access to resources in Canada’s North means that the cost of living for many Canadians and Indigenous peoples in Canada have risen to prices that shocked many people living in the rest of Canada. This, coupled with the food insecurity many of the the North’s inhabitants are experiencing means that sustainable nutrition is not easily available.

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School supplies are not the only thing lacking:

Food Security, defined as access to healthy and affordable food, is lacking in Nunavut.

  • Scheduled food shipments can be interrupted by the harsh weather,
  • Food shipments only arrive a few times a year, and
  • Food insecurity in Nunavut rose from 50% to 70% between 2011 and 2015.

“It hurts to know that a child my daughter’s age, who’s only five, is actually hungry,” Pameolik continued. It doesn’t feel like we’re a part of Canada.”

Astronomical Food Prices: The most shocking difference Canadians notice when travelling North is the food prices.

“Groceries cost, two, three or more times what I would pay in Southern Ontario, even with government subsidies”

“Last July, as I wandered through the store in Nunavut weighing the cost of each food item, I reminded myself I’m in Canada. In a country with abundant resources, all Canadians are entitled to a healthy, culturally-appropriate diet at an affordable price. Why can’t we make this happen?”

said Nunavut resident and Huffington Post writer Margaret Whitley.

Whitley mentioned “culturally-appropriate” because the federal subsidies are catered towards Southern Canadian lifestyles over the North’s indigenous people. For example, flour and other baking ingredients are not as highly subsidized as bread, making it difficult to bake bread as many prefer.

How the Government decides what to Subsidize: According to the Government of Canada, to be eligible for Nutrition North Canada subsidies on essential goods, your community must meet the following criteria:

  • Rely on aerial transportation of goods for more than 8 months a year,
  • Lack of surface transportation,
  • Have a stable, year-round population, and
  • Meet the provincial/territorial definition of a Northern community.

Residents Say That Even with Government Subsidies They Cannot Afford to Eat

Sheila Lumsden, a resident of Iqaluit, frequently flies to Ottawa to meet her needs. While there, she stocks up on as many groceries as possible. She says her family members in Ottawa do the same when they fly north to visit her.

Who could blame her? With the cost of fresh produce rising year after year, we cannot expect Canadians to sacrifice nutrition. While it is normal for out of season produce to be more expensive, the prices in Nunavut are horrifying. In 2016, the price of a head of cauliflower rose to $13 CAD. Other fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce, oranges, and apples soared in price by 23.4% from April 2015 to April 2016.

It may seem extreme to fly to another province for groceries, but online shopping is not a viable option in the North. Shipping prices are surprising, as Inuit Resident Emily Novalinga showed when attempting to  purchase a package of diapers and two containers of baby formula on Amazon. Her shipping and handling fee was $197.55 CAD bringing her total to $295.32 CAD. Other US-based wholesalers such as Walmart are not an option either as they do not ship food to Canada.

So Why Isn’t Nutrition North Canada Working?

  • NNC lacks price caps on the subsidized goods,
  • The program has no control over retailers’ pricing decisions, and
  • NNC is not subsidizing products effectively because it ignores the differences in the North’s cultural preferences.

How Can We Do Better?

Yvonne Jones, the MP in charge of Nutrition North agrees that relying on Nutrition North alone will not fix the food insecurity issues in Nunavut. “There has to be an accumulation of programs and services that accompany it, and this is where governments in the past, in my opinion, have failed” she pointed out.

Jones also emphasized the importance of including Inuit groups in the development of NNC. “People who live in the North aren’t going to eat the exotic kiwi fruit, but they’re going to need to have access to personal hygiene productsshe stated, reiterating the importance of a culturally appropriate subsidy program.

In April 2019, the federal government made a commitment to invest $15 million on local projects in the North such as community freezers and hydroponic greenhouses. Only time will tell if this strategy will be effective, but in the meantime it will be important to support and sustain our Northern communities as well as we can. After all, they’re Canadians too.