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Waiting for Nutrition North update

After consultations in 23 Northern communities, the long-awaited report on the Nutrition North Canada program is due to be released.

Passion fruit, left, and dragon fruit are subsidized items under the current Nutrition North Canada program model, while bullets and diapers are not. "We're going to have to decide whether this is a social program or a fairness issue," said INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett in February. - Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo

Consultations wrapped up in January, and included Iqaluit, Pond Inlet, Kugaaruk and Baker Lake.

Nunavut Member of Parliament Hunter Tootoo is eager to see what that report will contain, and suggested it might be released this week.

"I'm hopeful it addresses some of the concerns that were raised during the consultations, concern people had with the program," said Tootoo.

"There are a number of things. I think it should look not just at healthy foods, but basic needs. To help reduce the cost of living, not just the cost of food. The things that people need every day that should be covered under the program that were taken away when they made changes the last time."

For example, Nutrition North, in its transition from the Food Mail program, dropped items such as diapers, dental hygiene products, toilet paper, shampoo, fishing nets, boat motor parts, ammunition, gas – the last items are necessary for hunting and fishing.

Tootoo said he'd like to see the program opened up so individuals can take advantage of it, not just the larger retailers.

"I'd like it to address the food insecurity that we face, access to be able to get country food around. Help people get out and access country food who can't afford to right now," he added.

The current Nutrition North program, implemented between April 2011 and October 2012, has drawn much criticism. Under the program, federal subsidies are paid directly to the retailer. The Auditor General report in 2014 was quite clear when it said, "When departments do not fully consider the on-the-ground impact of their activities, they are missing opportunities to verify that they are hitting the mark for Canadians."

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. hosted researcher Tracey Galloway – a long-time critic of the program – in Iqaluit last December. She presented her latest findings related to the program, which are similar to the Auditor General report: the program doesn't work. It doesn't work for Nunavummiut and it doesn't work generally to satisfy its own mandate.

Is food affordable? she asked, as that's one goal of the program. Her reply is that food is not at all more affordable.

"Food costs are much higher in Nunavut communities than they are in the south," she said.

Galloway's suggestions to improve the program are similar to most advocates and echo what Tootoo says:

- impose and enforce strict price controls on subsidized items;

- monitor and report food prices, by community and store;

- bring back measures to monitor food quality;

- monitor and enforce retailer compliance and claims processing;

- change the list of subsidized foods, and add essential nonperishable foods, household items, and harvesting and craft equipment; and,

- remove barriers to personal orders – 92.3 per cent of the subsidy goes to the major retailers, while 3.4 goes to food establishments. 2.4 to individual, and 1.9 to institutions.

In early February, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Minister Carolyn Bennett told Senator Charlie Watt in the Senate that the report would be out soon. She also said food security in the North has been a preoccupation of hers for a very long time.

"We know that the solutions will be found in the North. It is about us having to revamp Nutrition North, listening to Northerners. It is about making sure that hunters and fishermen have what it takes to be able to feed their families as they used to in the past," Bennett said.

"We're going to have to decide whether this is a social program or a fairness issue," she said. "As we look at some of the foods in the grocery stores that, again, maybe we're going to have to handle a little differently if we're going to make this work. That will have to be after listening to Northerners to help us make that difficult decision."