APTN National News
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his minister of Aboriginal Affairs clung to a defence of the Northern federal food subsidy program Tuesday that was repeatedly undercut by the Auditor General of Canada during a press conference and in his Fall 2014 report.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson found that the federal Aboriginal Affairs department has no idea whether the food subsidy program is making nutritious and perishable food like vegetables more accessible and affordable. The department also has no clue whether northern retailers are passing on the subsidy provided by Ottawa on to mostly Indigenous Northern residents living in isolated communities, said Ferguson.
In its fall 2014 report, the Auditor General found that the department doesn’t even have a definition for affordability and never bothered to analyze the profit margins of Northern food retailers to determine whether they are making money off the subsidy or passing it on.
During question period and in a scrum with reporters Harper and Valcourt both clung to a two pronged defence of the program: the total weight of food sent north is increasing and the cost of the northern food basket is decreasing.
Harper was challenged on the report’s findings during the NDP’s opening Question Period volley.
“Why have the Conservatives failed to track retailers and ensure that this program is helping northern families who are struggling to make ends meet?” said NDP MP Meagan Leslie, who led the party’s Question Period attack.
Harper used the two-pronged the defence.
“There has been about a 25 per cent increase under Nutrition North in the shipping of health foods to the north,” said Harper. “The price of the average family food basket has dropped by about six per cent.”
An hour earlier, Valcourt used the same defence during a scrum with reporters.
“The cost of the food basket has gone down by $110 a month for a family of four,” said Valcourt. “Furthermore, we know the volume of perishable food going north has increased by 25 per cent.”
Yet, both those indicators used by Harper and his minister to defend the program actually indicate very little, said Ferguson.
“Knowing how much you ship doesn’t tell you how much you consume and it doesn’t tell you whether the full subsidy is being passed on or not and those are the things the department needs to measure,” said Ferguson, during a press conference following the release of his report. “It is easy to measure how much to ship, it’s harder to measure those other things.”
Ferguson’s report also gave little credence to the food basket numbers used by Harper and Valcourt. The report said 30 northern stores were excluded from the calculation and the department didn’t really know how accurately the prices it received were reported.
“While the department reported on the cost of the food basket, it had limited assurance that the prices provided by northern retailers used to calculate the cost of the food basket were accurate because the department did not systematically verify the accuracy of prices reported,” said Ferguson’s report.
Cree NDP MP Romeo Saganash said the auditor general’s findings on the food program left him with one conclusion.
“The Conservatives have abandoned Northerners,” said Saganash.
One of the government’s biggest proponents of the program, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, was not used by the government Tuesday to defend the issue.
APTN Investigates recently reported that Inuit in Aglukkaq’s riding of Nunavut were scrounging for food in the Rankin Inlet dump because they couldn’t afford prices in the local grocery store.
In some Northern communities, a two-litre carton of orange juice can cost $14.
Valcourt said the department would be implementing the report’s recommendations and retailers will be required to reveal their profit margins beginning in April 2015.