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Tootoo wants inquiry into Nutrition North, calling it 'the Phoenix Food Program'

Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo called for an inquiry into the Nutrition North Canada retailer subsidy program during question period in Ottawa June 11.

Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo called on the federal government for an inquiry into the Nutrition North Canada retailer subsidy program in the House of Commons June 11, saying a program that has cost Canadian taxpayers more than half a billion dollars and failed so spectacularly should be picked apart.
photo courtesy Christian Diotte/House of Commons Photo Services

"Since it launched in 2011, successive governments have spent over half a billion dollars on the Nutrition North Program. In that time the number of households in Nunavut affected by food insecurity has risen from 33 to over 50 per cent," said Tootoo.

"With results that bad we should call it the Phoenix Food Program. Minister, Nunavummiut want answers. Will you open an inquiry into Nutrition North so we can understand why it has failed so spectacularly, and find a way to ensure food security for our communities."

As a Tootoo finished his question, another MP called out, "Good question."

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett said in response that it is unacceptable that many Northerners are still struggling to feed their families.

"Our government has expanded Nutrition North to support a total of 116 isolated communities although we know that more needs to be done," Bennett said.

She did mention support for harvesters, a side program, and that the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency is also supporting pilot projects for made-in-community solutions.

Watch Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett's response:
Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo calls for inquiry into Nutrition North Program

However, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on the campaign trail, and briefly touched down in Iqaluit to meet with Nunavummiut in January 2015, he swiftly addressed the hot button topic of Nutrition North, saying the program needed to be rebuilt.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen here with Alicee Joamie of Apex, campaigned in Iqaluit in January 2015, he told Nunavummiut the Conservative-era Nutrition North Program needed to be rebuilt. Four years later, with a federal election months away, that has yet to happen.
NNSL file photo

That hasn't happened.

Tootoo said, in an interview with Nunavut News, that funding increases are like throwing good money after bad.

"Instead of throwing more money at it, let's figure out why it's not working and go from there. They're (the Liberals) are just going along with it. I thought they were going to fix it," said Tootoo, who adds he's considering running for MP again based on encouragement and support he has received from across the territory.

"The only way to fix it is to take a look at it in its entirety. Look at the food chain supply, the wholesaler, retailer distribution, and figure out where the breakdown is, and what it's going to need to be able to fix it."

Tootoo says he doesn't know why the government refuses to take a hard look at the program.

"If you had numbers like that, if it was in Toronto or Montreal, you think they'd be sitting back and doing nothing about it? I doubt it," he said.

He says Nutrition North needs to be picked apart, not have Band-Aid solutions applied.

"Shipments have increased by about 20 per cent. The number of items in the program have been expanded. But still it's getting worse," he said.

Nunavummiut express dissatisfaction, suspicion and concern about subsidies being passed on to consumers, Tootoo said.

"If you did a complete review and inquiry into the program, you'd be able to narrow it down. The government is saying they're doing audits and they're saying it is (being passed on) but if you want to get rid of that argument, do an inquiry, put all the facts on the table, and people will be able to see for themselves," he said.

"I think Canadians would be embarrassed as Canadians to know that fellow Canadians, in a first world country, half the population of a jurisdiction, is living food insecure.

"And the fact that your spending half a billion dollars and the situation's getting worse ... You'd think they'd (the government) want to do their due diligence. They always say they want to do evidence-based, science-based decisions. It's kind of hard to do that if you don't have all the information."

Tootoo plans on following up with a statement in the House of Commons tomorrow (June 12).

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