By Kathleen Martens
APTN National News
OTTAWA– A Nunavut politician says improvements to Nutrition North can’t come soon enough.
Sam Tutanuak, deputy mayor of Rankin Inlet, is pleased the Auditor General of Canada not only found fault with the food subsidy program but recommended immediate improvements. He praised Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s push to apply the subsidies based on need rather than Health Canada’s food pyramid.
“About f#%kin’ time,” Tutanuak said via phone from Nunavut.
Tutanuak’s reaction is in keeping with his emotional, expletive-laden comments in an APTN Investigates’ story Wasting Away broadcast on Nov. 21. The story showed people of Rankin Inlet using the dump as a place to find food because they couldn’t afford to buy them in the stores.
The story also illustrated what members of the popular Inuit Facebook group, Feeding My Family, have been protesting for two years: that there is no proof $60 million in annual subsidies are being passed on to starving people in the North.
Ferguson chided the government for not ensuring retailers were complying with the program and not simply keeping the money. He said it could have been as simple as seeing whether their profits increased.
Tutanuak hopes the government acts immediately now that winter has settled in the North making people even more desperate for food.
“The lady (Leesee Papatsie) started this off,” Tutanuak said of the Feeding My Family protest group founder. “That finally woke up some people that ‘holy sh#t’ this is happening up here.”
Tutanuak said it’s time the Harper government wakes up, too.
“To see these big (charitable) organizations … advertise little kids in (Africa and Asia) picking something off the ground to try and eat. That’s touching. But to see that it’s happening in your own country Canada, supposedly one of the best countries in the world to live in. That’s a good wake-up call,” he said.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Cathy Towtongie says her land claims organization has been demanding this type of transparency since the program began. Consumers should know in the store why they’re paying what they’re paying, she said.
“As required by Article 32 of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, Inuit were not afforded the opportunity to participate in the redesign of the program,” said Towtongie, in a statement. “NTI plays no role in appointing people to the program’s advisory board. NTI does not have any say in how the education program funding is allocated to Nunavut, and NTI did not participate in the restructuring of the eligible items list.”
Towtongie also called on the government to make immediate changes.
The North West Company is one of two major retailers in the North that is based in Winnipeg. Every penny it gets to subsidize nutritious food in northern communities is passed on to consumers, says its president and CEO.
CEO Edward Kennedy released a prepared statement in response to Ferguson’s report Tuesday.
“We participate in the program in 67 communities and know firsthand the Nutrition North program is working but can be even better,” Kennedy said. “We agree with the Auditor General’s report released today that recommends changes to make the program more effective.”
Kennedy said his firm received $31.7 million in subsidies in 2013.
But the government will have to take North West’s word for it because Ferguson says it has no way of knowing whether the subsidies to reduce retailers’ shipping costs result in lower prices on “nutritious” food.
The result is that some of the poorest people in Canada are paying the most for food.
The second major retailer – Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. – told APTN National News it would provide comment Wednesday.
In his fall 2014 report, Ferguson found 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.
“The department has not captured the information needed to manage the program or measure its success,” he said.
His findings are a devastating indictment on Aboriginal Affairs which created the program in 2011 to help mainly Indigenous residents cope with sticker shock.
Retailers get greater subsidies based on the distance the food travels. In isolated Grise Fiord in Nunavut, for example, stores qualify for the full $16-per-kilogram subsidy while shipping to less remote communities nets as little as five cents a kilogram.
The Conservative government has defended the program, saying it has given more people in isolated and remote communities’ access to healthy and perishable foods.
But the report found some decidedly unhealthy foods are being subsidized. Ice cream, bacon and processed-cheese spread qualify for the lower of the program’s two subsidy levels while baby formula and bottled water do not.
Other foods that used to be subsidized under the food mail program, such as canned goods and rice, have been droppe
The government announced last week it would spend another $11.3 million on Nutrition North over the next year.
Kennedy says his retail chain has tracked approximately 4,000 subsidized items since the program began in April 2011 and found the price of these subsidized items has dropped an average of eight per cent.
“This decrease comes despite the fact it costs North West substantially more to buy food now than it did a few years ago. When you factor in the inflation in the cost of perishable food, the actual retail price savings is more than 15 per cent,” Kennedy said. “While comparable food prices are rising elsewhere, overall prices in northern communities have dropped because of the Nutrition North subsidies and because our more efficient freight routings have outweighed cost increases for products, fuel, staffing, utilities, travel and so on.
At the same time prices have declined, Kennedy said the volume of healthy food purchased has gone up.