Among the long-awaited changes to the Nutrition North Canada program, which were announced the afternoon of Dec. 10 in Iqaluit, one was missing.
The federal government failed to clearly address a major concern for Nunavummiut – retailer transparency – though several other changes do indicate good news for stressed consumers.
After taking a couple of shots at the Harper government’s failures with Nutrition North, Yvonne Jones, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade Dominic LeBlanc, noted some of that good news.
“Changes to the subsidy rates, as well as to the food eligibility list are being made to reflect what we heard from all of you and others across the North about how we can better help them access healthy food,” said Jones, reminding officials in attendance a new Harvesters Support Grant would be introduced in the new year as per an earlier announcement.
Of note, some items under the retailer-freight subsidy will be introduced as a new “highest-level rate.” These include milk, frozen vegetables, infant formula and infant food. The list of subsidized items has been revised and includes butter and lard, cooking oils, baking powder, salt and yeast in the same category as pre-processed white bread, among other items.
Diapers have also been added to that category.
Other existing rates have been increased.
The changes come into effect Jan. 1.
Family Services Minister Elisapee Sheutiapik appreciated the changes, while speaking her mind.
“The federal government should re-examine the subsidy design and implementation to ensure that community members in eligible communities benefit directly from the subsidy,” said Sheutiapik.
“We’ve been saying all along it’s the retailers benefitting the most.”
Sheutiapik said once the GN completes a full analysis of the changes, it will submit comments to the federal government. She also noted the GN would carefully consider how changes would impact another major concern: caribou.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Aluki Kotierk spoke similarly, saying NTI would need to become knowledgeable about the changes. But she stressed context.
“We have to remember that Nunavut has 25 communities and every single community depends on the Nutrition North program, which is different than other jurisdictions. We also have to remember that in Nunavut, in the spring a report came out. Seven out of 10 children in Nunavut go to bed hungry every day – in Canada, a country well-known to be well off,” said Kotierk.
“When you’re hungry, you’re not thinking about anything else. You’re thinking about food and where you’re going to get food. You’re not able to achieve what you’re meant to achieve to make life better for Inuit if you’re hungry.”
She added, “We’ve listened and we’re told there’s a number of things that sound good but, I just want to be clear, we haven’t been involved in that.”
Inuit walked away from the Nutrition North Canada Indigenous Working Group in April. That decision was made by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) board, which includes regional organizations.
“It was a point to be made to the federal government that the purpose of having Inuit in the Indigenous working group has to be based on a real relationship,” Kotierk previously told Nunavut News.
She cited as example, “how retailers are subsidized for food that is shipped rather than food that is sold or consumed.”
As part of the Nutrition North changes announced, Jones said an Inuit-Crown Food Security working group “to focus on food security and working towards a sustainable food system in Inuit Nunangat” is being created.
Meanwhile, Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo remained in Ottawa, as he was scheduled to question LeBlanc about Nutrition North in Parliament Tuesday.
“Some of those changes are long overdue, although they missed the mark on the biggest concern that people have – that the larger retailers are profiting off the subsidy. They failed to address the transparency and accountability component of concerns people had and still have,” said Tootoo by phone.
New Inuit-Crown table could determine further changes to program
Jones was questioned during the news conference about the transparency of the program, and she insisted audits are now more rigorous. The same was said by an official during the technical briefing for the press prior to Jones’ appearance.
Makivik president Charlie Watt had similar sentiments, commending some changes, but noting the absence of one important consideration.
“We considered Nutrition North a failure from the start,” he stated in a news release.
“The previous Food Mail program was better for Inuit. I don’t know why the Harper government decided to scrap that program when it wasn’t broken. Nutrition North Canada was heavily criticized from the beginning for benefitting the stores rather than the customer.”
While he noted positive changes, he said “greater transparency is still needed.”
Reporters were told during the technical briefing that retailers do have to supply what they pay for freight, as well as outline profit margins, in order to facilitate independent audits. Audit results are posted on the Nutrition North website.
Recognizing continuing concern about transparency, the federal government said it would develop a communication plan with each community so those intended to benefit will have a better understanding of the program.
“Our expectation going forward is that the federal government will work jointly with Inuit through the recently announced Inuit-Crown bilateral process on food security to make the necessary and foundational systemic changes to (Nutrition North Canada) so it evolves into an accountable, transparent social program that reduces food insecurity in Inuit communities,” stated ITK president Natan Obed.
The federal government has pledged an additional $62.6 million over five years starting in 2019-20, some of which will be used to introduce the new Harvesters Support Grant in April.
Jones also said the program will continue to be reviewed, especially by the new Inuit-Crown Food Security working group, and more changes could be expected in the future.
The budget for 2018-19 is expected to be approximately $99 million.