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Nunavut fails poverty report card

First annual report issued by NIWA makes stark assessment and recommendations
Food Insecurity: Many Nunavummiut struggle with food insecurity, which impedes their access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food. Another priority for the Nunavut Inuit Women’s Association is to ensure that all territorial residents have access to healthy and affordable food options.

The Amautiit: Nunavut Inuit Women’s Association (NIWA) has released a damning first annual poverty report card, highlighting “the harsh realities faced by Nunavut’s most vulnerable populations”. NIWA is calling for urgent action needed to address theses systemic problems that perpetuate poverty and inequality in the territory’s communities.

NIWA is an organization that advocates for the rights and well-being of Inuit women and families in Nunavut. The findings of this year’s poverty report card make it clear that there is a need for a change in the methods of combating poverty and its future implications.

The three major findings from the report are as follows:

Child Poverty Rates: Nunavut continues to have “alarmingly high” child poverty rates, with a “significant percentage of our children living in conditions of economic hardship”. It is NIWA’s belief that it is a priority to meet the needs of the youngest community members while “investing in their future through targeted interventions and support services."

Food Insecurity: Many Nunavummiut struggle with food insecurity, which impedes their access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food. Another NIWA priority is to ensure that all territorial residents have access to healthy and affordable food options.

Ongoing impact of COVID-19: The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the socio-economic issues faced by vulnerable populations, “exacerbating existing inequalities … NIWA emphasizes the need for targeted support for those most affected by the pandemic, including Inuit women, children, and elders.”

In sum, NIWA is urging those at all levels of government, Indigenous leadership, and community stakeholders to take the findings of the poverty report card seriously and make structural changes.

“This is already quite well known among Inuit families in Nunavut,” said Nunavut MP Lori Idlout in conversation with Nunavut News. “All the families that I visit in the communities talk about the challenges -- how difficult it is to get and keep employment, and how the income support programs are not sufficient, and the increase in the cost of living, and how the Nutrition North program is not working. So there’s such a huge combination of factors that’s leading to why this report is so important. We can use it as another source of information to advocate for resources for Nunavut.”

Margaret Nakashuk, Nunavut’s minister for Family Services, the Status of Women, and Poverty Reduction, said in emailed statement to Nunavut News that “a market basket measure -- Canada’s Office Poverty Line -- is being worked on for Nunavut … Statistics Canada’s Nunavut Market Basket Measure was officially released in November 2023. It estimates that in 2021, 39.7% of Nunavut’s population and 46.5% of persons under the age of 18 lived below the poverty line. Statistics Canada also indicates that this has decreased from 43.2% and 53.9% in 2018.”

NIWA recommends a three-pronged approach to these changes (as taken from the NIWA press release):

1. Reforming government programs and policies:

-Fix existing government programs, policies, and subsidies such as Nutrition North to better support residents of Nunavut.

-Pursue options to reduce dependency on external food supplies by exploring local farming, greenhouses, and other sustainable food sources.

“Programs are diminishing,” commented Idlout. “On a bigger picture level, it’s something that I’m always seeing with [the] government. They are always talking about their special relationship with [Indigenous peoples] and the Government of Nunavut, yet all they do is give lip service, they don’t provide the investments needed to lift Indigenous peoples out [of] poverty. The Nutrition North program subsidize for-profit companies like the Northwest Corporations.

“[These subsidy program funds] are going directly into the pockets of [these] for-profit companies and southern shareholders … They are profiting in the hundreds of millions. It’s why this Nutrition North program isn’t working, and its shown in this Amautiit Report. Poverty is not being alleviated in our communities.”

Idlout stresses she was “disappointed” with Northern Indigenous Affairs Minister Dan Vandal’s response to her request for an audit by the Auditor General to the Nutrition North Program, instead opting for an internal review. “I’m going to pressure him to make sure he goes beyond an internal review.”

2. Proactive Investment in Prevention:

-Invest in preventative measures rather than reactive responses, such as addressing the foster care system and the legal system’s approach to incarcerations

-Focus on reducing poverty by providing education and support in areas like financial literacy and long-term financial sustainability, starting with schools

“I have definitely been giving a lot of pressure to the Liberal government to invest more in Nunavut. We were, as the NDP able to get more for Indigenous peoples generally, and it was because of hard work at the NDP that we can see [more Indigenous investment] in the 2024 budget, including [subsetting] Jordan’s Principle and the Inuit Child First Initiative.”

3. Support for Inuit-led solutions and traditional practices:

-Validate and support the nutritional, cultural, and skill-building benefits of country food and hunting through government programs.

-Build capacity for Inuit-led solutions and data collection, ensuring policies are evaluated by the people they affect and support systems are robust and community-driven.

The Government of Nunavut and Department of Family Services does focus on just such initiatives, said Nakashuk. “[We] provide $2.5 million annually in contribution funding to support community food organizations and community food projects such as cooking classes and young hunter mentorship programs.

“Inuit organizations and the departments of Health, ED&T, Environment and Culture and Heritage also provide funding to support hunters, those learning to hunt and for country food.”

Although this is helpful on a territorial level for self-sustinance, it does not go far enough with utilizing the resources at the federal government’s disposal. Idlout has been advocating in Parliament for greater accountability about the spending of federal funds by companies on subsidy programs, which would go a long way to bridging the gaps in food insecurity issues.

“One thing I was able to get with the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Committee,” said Idlout, “[was] submit a motion and get consent from all the parties to invite the CEOs from Canadian North, Northwest Company, Conair, Minister Vandal, Program Director Wayne Walsh, as well as a local Coop from my community to appear before [the] committee, and that’s what we’ll see next week when we have an opportunity to question them on the Nutrition North Program.”

None of these companies are obligated to open their books to Idlout or the committee, but that remains a hope for the future. “Given that the questions that I’ve been raising in the House have not gone far enough, I felt like this was important enough to call them as witnesses. It was great to have agreement from the rest of the committee for us to get to really just try and understand how they use the program to help alleviate poverty in northern committees … Depending on the responses that we get, we’ll definitely be looking at what I need to do to get the Auditor General to audit the [Nutrition North] program.”

Kira Wronska Dorward

About the Author: Kira Wronska Dorward

I attended Trinity College as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, graduating in 2012 as a Specialist in History. In 2014 I successfully attained a Master of Arts in Modern History from UofT..
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