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.
"The initial funding and other changes are welcome. However, they have failed, failed to fix the biggest problem with the program, its transparency and accountability," said independent Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo during question period at Parliament the next day.
"For example, the department has admitted the program subsidy received by some retailers is higher than the freight rate that they are paying, which is why some Nunavummiut believe some retailers are unjustly profiting from the subsidy."
Tootoo asked Minister of Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade Dominic LeBlanc if he would commit to finally fixing that problem before the spring budget.
"I absolutely share my colleague's concern with the need to add increased transparency. I've talked to him about that. I've talked to Northern premiers about that," said LeBlanc, adding his department would bring more and further changes.
"We'll start with the new Crown-Inuit working group on food security."
The formation of the new working group was one the improvements parliamentary secretary to Leblanc, Yvonne Jones, announced in Iqaluit.
Jones was questioned during the news conference about the issues with transparency and accountability. She insisted audits were now more rigorous. The same was said by an official during the technical briefing for press prior to Jones' appearance.
Nutrition North Canada was heavily criticized from the beginning for benefitting the stores rather than the customer. But 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 in a news release.
Diapers to be subsidized
Jones listed the positive changes.
"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," she said, reminding officials in attendance a new Harvesters Support Grant would be introduced in the new year as previously announced.
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.
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 similarly said that 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."
Kotierk 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."
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.
The budget for 2018-19 is expected to be approximately $99 million.