Some federal candidates in the Northwest Territories are criticizing Ottawa's recent changes to a longtime northern food subsidy program, with some pledging to scrap the changes if they are elected.
NDP incumbent Dennis Bevington said the Conservative government's Nutrition North Program, which came into effect this month, does not help retailers or consumers in the North, where food prices are generally higher than in southern Canada due to shipping costs.
Under the government's old Food Mail Program, Ottawa provided grocery transportation subsidies to lower food prices in remote northern communities that don't have regular road or marine access.
The Food Mail Program was replaced on April 1 by the Nutrition North Program, in which subsidies go to retailers that will negotiate freight rates for lower costs. Any cost savings must be passed on to consumers, according to the program.
But Bevington said and NDP government would scrap Nutrition North, restore the old Food Mail Program and make it easier for individual consumers to benefit from the subsidy.
"What we want to do is restore a program that allows personal mail orders in a decent fashion, that allows the consumer to get the benefits from the some $58 million that are spent on these programs annually," Bevington told CBC News on Tuesday.
"The Conservative government has cut this back to $48 million, so we've seen a $10-million drop in what they're willing to put into the Food Mail Program. I think that's wrong."
Bevington added that Nutrition North not only does not help consumers, but it has become cumbersome for northern retailers to take part in.
Liberal approach criticized
Liberal candidate Joe Handley also called the Nutrition North Program a failure, noting rising grocery prices in N.W.T. communities he has visited during his campaign.
Handley said the Liberals would restore the previous Food Mail Program — with some changes — if they are elected to government.
"The problem with the Food Mail program before was that people who had a credit card could access it by going to wholesalers or stores in the South and so on. But those who didn't have credit cards are whatever, they weren't able to," he told supporters in Inuvik, N.W.T., on Friday.
"Instead of throwing the whole Food Mail Program out, and coming up with this new idea of just subsidizing the retailers, they should have fixed the problem and given people, like a charge card."
But Bevington said Handley should no be making "policy on the run," suggesting that candidates "have to actually take a very serious look" at the issue.
In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for Conservative candidate Sandy Lee reiterated the party's position that Nutrition North aims to offer northerners a better selection of food — especially produce, milk and eggs — at lower prices.
"We will be following this program closely and make adjustments if needed," the spokesperson wrote.
Beaufort Delta mayors back Lee
Earlier this week, Lee told supporters in the N.W.T.'s Beaufort Delta that northerners would get more from a Conservative government is they elect her.
"We have a choice — do we want to be part of the government? Do you want to be part of that northern caucus that gets to speak to the prime minister about our priorities every week?" Lee said at a campaign rally in Inuvik, N.W.T., on Monday.
If the Conservatives are re-elected to government, and if Lee is elected in Western Arctic, she promised to move forward on $150 million that was earmarked in the latest federal budget for an all-weather road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.
"There's no secret … obviously you need to get doors opened for you," Inuvik Mayor Denny Rodgers told CBC News. "We want a member of Parliament here that can go down there for us and have a voice and sit at that table, be part of that northern caucus."
Lee has also won the support of Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Merven Gruben and Mayor Billy Storr Sr. of Aklavik, N.W.T.
"The NDP are not even a member of the opposition … they get in a little squeak once in a while," Storr said. "If we have somebody sitting at the table, part of the government, I think we can accomplish a lot more from the Northwest Territories."
Voters across Canada, including those in Western Arctic, will cast their ballots on May 2.