Demonstrators protesting high food prices in Northern Canada pledged to boycott the North West Company today, and there were also signs of support on social media, though many shoppers were still out and about.

Earlier this month, a Facebook food security group, Feeding My Family, called for customers to stay away from North West Company stores for Jan. 31 to protest prices in remote communities.

"We're making a stand together," says Leesee Papatsie, the group's organizer. "We're asking for prices to be lowered a bit and we're asking the food be edible."

North West Company owns the Northern, NorthMart, Quickstop and Giant Tiger retail chains in Canada, along with Alaska's AC Value Centers and Cost-U-Less stores in the South Pacific and Caribbean.

Rhoda Hiqiniq and Salomie Qitsualik of Gjoa Haven

Rhoda Hiqiniq and Salomie Qitsualik of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, were stocking up on groceries in Iqaluit Saturday. (CBC)

 

"Shame on these stores that have refused to undertake or help reduce prices to make more affordable food available to the hungry," Peter Kilabuk wrote on the group page.

CBC reporter Elyse Skura said there were fewer shoppers than normal at Iqaluit's Northmart on Saturday, but there were still dozens of people going in and out of the store, one of the few places to shop in the city.

Some said if they didn't shop Saturday, they would have to go in Sunday, especially since they can no longer rely on hunters.

"In the old days, they were always having country food. It didn't bother them, but now our grandchildren are only having store food. That's why it's hard," said Rhoda Hiqiniq, translating for Salomie Qitsualik, an elder from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, who was speaking Inuktitut.  

"In Gjoa Haven, I know, just two, three little bags would cost 400 or 500 bucks."

Hiqiniq was buying food during her visit to the capital and said they were unaware of the boycott

No choice but to buy groceries

"We agree that it's a good idea," she said. "But when you're out of groceries, you have to go to the Northern to feed your family."​

Papatsie said supporters in the three territories as well as Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick planned to boycott North West Company stores.

Saturday members posted in the group that they were writing letters to members of Parliament and speaking to shoppers outside North West Company stores. 

The call for a boycott has sparked debate. Some have criticized Papatsie's choice of target, saying the blame for high costs can also be levelled at many other groups, including the federal government, other grocery stores and Inuit organizations.

Tim Aqukkasuk Argetsinger groceries

Tim Aqukkasuk Argetsinger in the Inupiat community of Kotzebue, Alaska says these groceries cost $70. (Submitted by Tim Aqukkasuk Argetsinger)

Papatsie says the group chose to target the North West Company for its long history in the North as a remnant of the Hudson Bay Company.

"They've been here the longest and they're located everywhere. People want to [protest] those others, please do," she said.  

The movement has even gone international with people pledging to boycott the Alaskan arm of the company.

"They've sold food at 300 to 500 per cent markups for decades," says Tim Aqukkasuk Argetsinger, an Inupiaq activist in Kotzebue, Alaska.

"It's really callous and it's really greedy to continue to gouge food prices, despite this context — this growing political and social context," he said. 

Mixed views on Nutrition North

People in the Feeding My Family group don't think the federal government's $60-million Nutrition North program is working at all.

Many say the food is not only overpriced but often rotten.

Clyde River rotten cheese

A shopper in Clyde River, Nunavut, said this cheese cost $8.99 and wasn't supposed to expire until May but was already mouldy at the grocery store. (Submitted photo)

"A friend of mine got some Clamato juice that was four months past expired that was two dollars a bottle. People think they're getting a deal. They jump all over it and he was sick for three days off of it," said Brad Helliwell, a welder from Ottawa who picked up work boots at the Northmart.

The department in charge of Nutrition North wouldn't comment specifically on the boycott or the issue of expired and overpriced food. 

In an email, a department spokesperson said they are working with retailers and northerners to improve the program and make it more efficient. 

"The government of Canada is committed to ensuring that northerners like all Canadians have access to quality, nutritious food," the statement said.

"Suggestions will be used to develop a range of options to help the program stay on a sustainable path while increasing healthy food consumption in the North." 

The MP for Nunavut, Leona Aglukkaq, says she's advocating for more money for Nutrition North in Ottawa "to help the program better keep pace with consumer demand for healthy food."

"I agree with the auditor general that the Nutrition North program needs improvement and that the retailers need to do a better job of demonstrating how they pass the subsidy," she said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, retailers continue to defend the controversial program, saying every penny of federal subsidies goes to hungry consumers.

"I believe additional funding is needed to make the program sustainable and to have the impact that people are looking for. So more funding would definitely be an answer," said Derek Reimer, director of business development with the North West Company.