Food shopping 'extremely stressful': Protests against high prices in northern Labrador

Residents confronted Premier Dwight Ball about food prices in Labrador's Inuit communities, where some groceries cost three times as much as they do elsewhere,

Food costs 2 to 3 times more in Labrador's Inuit communities

Protesters in Nain demonstrate outside the Northern Store against high food prices. (Elsie Russell/Twitter)

Frustrations over food prices in Labrador's Inuit communities, where some groceries cost three times as much as they do elsewhere, led to a protest in Nain Wednesday, where residents confronted Premier Dwight Ball about food subsidies. 

"I asked him 'are you aware of all these high prices in Nain, and what it takes and how we're suffering?'" said Heather Angnatok, who helped organize the demonstration.

Protesters confront Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball in Nain. (Elsie Russell/Twitter)

Born and raised in Nain, Angnatok said the situation is getting worse. 

She said it's very difficult to put food on the table with an average income of $1,000 every two weeks, and many others survive on less than that or on social assistance.  

"I actually had an e-mail from a young mother," Angnatok said. "She said 'I only receive $175 every two weeks. I'm really hungry, I can't afford to eat. I'm so stressed out, I'm trying to not depend on my family so much, because they're having difficulties as well. If you have any leftovers, can I have them?'"

Shocking price tags

Meanwhile, pictures posted on social media of grocery store shelves in Nain are prompting outrage online. Viewers can't believe the $7-cans of soup, $16-bottles of dishwashing liquid and boxes of cereal, $17-bottles of juice, and nearly $75 for baby formula. 

Does a can of soup cost $7 in your grocery store? (Lindsey Moorhouse/Facebook)

The photos and the protest come on the heels of a new study showing 60 per cent of people on Labrador's north coast struggle to feed themselves and their families.

In Nain and Hopedale, those numbers are over 80 per cent, with some people facing what researchers call severe insecurity, which includes skipping meals, or sometimes going full days without eating.

Lindsey Moorhouse called grocery shopping in Nain "extremely stressful."

"I'm just a single person. I don't have any children, so it's just a stress that's on myself," she said.

"But I think about families every time I go in, because even with the paycheque that I get, it's stretched to the limit just to get the bare necessities of perishable foods — bread, milk, eggs, cheese — and I can't imagine having to provide for a whole family, let alone children."

You will pay dearly for fresh fruit ... if you can get it. (Lindsey Moorhouse/Facebook)

Moorhouse moved to the community in October, and was shocked by the prices, which she calls "extreme." 

Perishable food has to be bought when it comes in, usually on Thursdays, and even then there's a rush to the store because, if you wait, you end up with sub-par produce, Moorhouse said.

I'm really hungry, I can't afford to eat. I'm so stressed out.- email from young mother to Heather Angnatok

"You just deal with it."

She said meat is frozen, not fresh,  sometimes freezerburned, and also very expensive. 

"If you have friends over and you have to go let's say get a special supper, you have to pay the price," Moorhouse said.

"You have to go in. If you want to make spaghetti, you're going to pay $11 for your pasta, you're going to pay I don't know how much for your pasta sauce and your meats and your mushrooms."

The problem is made worse by a provincial ban on hunting caribou in Labrador, forcing residents to change their traditional reliance on that regional staple and instead use food bought in stores. 

Are subsidies passed on?

Both the federal and provincial governments do offer food subsidy programs, but there is skepticism about whether they work.

A 2014 report by Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson said the Department of Aboriginal Affairs doesn't require merchants to report their profit margins.

More than $70 for a case of baby formula is too high, according to some Nain residents who want to know if food subsidies are being passed on. (Lindsey Moorhouse/Facebook)

Moorhouse and Angnatok both want more transparency from governments and store owners about how the programs are working. 

Angnatok says she's "not one bit" convinced subsidies are being passed on to customers.

"They're not listening to us. How can we go in and say 'look, you really need to put your prices down, we can't afford to come here.'  But you know what?  We're still going there. We go there every day. We have to."

About the Author

Matt McCann

CBC News

Matt McCann produces and co-hosts CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.