Nutrition North eligibility questioned in Northern Ontario

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is reviewing its eligibility criteria for the Nutrition North program after a scathing review by the auditor general revealed, among other problems, that neighbouring First Nations in northern Ontario receive different subsidies.

15 isolated First Nations cut off subsidy for healthy foods since 2011

Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson speaks during a press conference at the National Press Theatre following the tabling of the 2014 Fall Report of the Auditor General in the House of Commons in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Nutrition North eligibility is being questioned in Northern Ontario 15 isolated First Nations have been cut off subsidy for healthy foods since 2011 6:05
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is reviewing its eligibility criteria for the Nutrition North program after a scathing review by the auditor general revealed, among other problems, that neighbouring First Nations in Northern Ontario receive different subsidies.

"We have found that the department [of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development] has not established community eligibility criteria that are fair and accessible," said last month's report from the auditor general.

The report also said that since 2011 the department has not fulfilled its promise to annually review the eligibility of communities.

Wapekeka First Nation and Kitchenuhmaykoosib First Nation both lack year-round road access and both are about 600 kilometres from Thunder Bay. But Wapekeka receives only a partial subsidy ($0.05/kilogram) from Nutrition North, while Kitchenuhmaykoosib receives the full subsidy ($1.60/kilogram).

$15 for 4 litres of milk

The health director in Wapekeka said no one has explained to her why her community receives a lower subsidy than its neighbour about 30 kilometres away.

At nearly $15 for four litres, drinking milk is a luxury for many children in Wapekeka First Nation, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. (Sandra Mu/Getty Images)
But Beatrice Anderson said it costs too much to eat well in the community of about 350 people.

"If I have to go in and purchase my food here, just a couple of shopping bags is like $200 to $300," Anderson said of a grocery shopping trip for her family of three in Wapekeka. 

Four litres of milk cost $14.99, she said.

"Even the working families, they struggle," Anderson said. "Just because we need more healthy diets but, it's so hard to access those at the community level."

Anderson said there's another price to be paid when nutritious food is unattainable.

"The life span is shortened," she said, by high rates of obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

Diets in Wapekeka are supplemented by wild foods like fish and moose, the bounty of which is shared.

"The hunting is good," Anderson said. "The moose and all the other game that they kill is often shared. Sometimes we have food drives and often there'd be a bunch of hunters that would go out and go get wild game and just split everything, all the meat [goes] to the community."

Cut from program

The Nutrition North program replaced the old Food Mail program in 2011. Both had the aim of reducing the cost of nutritious food in remote parts of Canada. But where the Food Mail program subsidized shipping costs, the Nutrition North program shifted the subsidy to retailers.

The old Food Mail program provided money for hunting supplies. Nutrition North does not.

It's another one of the shortcomings, according to Wendy Trylinksi, the manager of public health education at Nishnawbe Aski Nation. The treaty organization represents 50 First Nations in Ontario's remote north. Trylinski said 15 of them were cut off the subsidy completely in 2011.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities eligible for full or partial Nutrition North subsidy

  • Angling Lake( Wapekeka) 
  • Attawapiskat 
  • Bearskin Lake
  • Big Trout Lake (Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug)
  • Fort Albany
  • Fort Severn
  • Kasabonika 
  • Kashechewan
  • Kingfisher Lake
  • Muskrat Dam
  • Peawanuck
  • Pikangikum 
  • Sachigo Lake
  • Weagamow
  • Wunnummin 

Source: Nutrition North Canada

"And there really was no rational for why that decision was made," she said. "There was no consultation at the community level as to why their communities were cut from the program."

The auditor general's report said Aboriginal Affairs estimates it would cost $7 million per year to add about 50 fly-in, isolated northern communities that are not currently eligible for the full subsidy.

In response to the report, the department said it is "conducting a detailed review of all isolated northern communities to better understand the challenges they face due to isolation in accessing healthy, nutritious foods at affordable prices."

There's no date for when the review will be completed.

'Ready for the compost bin'

Meanwhile, Trylinski said Nishnawbe Aski Nation is doing its own research to source local distributors and potential distribution routes.

Residents take part in a healthy eating class in Webequie, a remote First Nation in northern Ontario. (Simon van der Maaten)
That could help address problems with the quality of the food that is subsidized to travel long distances, she said.

"We've been in communities where some of the produce in the store is pretty much ready for the compost bin and yet it's at a high cost that someone not living in a First Nation community would never, never even consider purchasing," Trylinski said.

Health director Anderson agreed, noting a $14.99 bag of milk is often close to, or past, its best-before date by the time it arrives in Wapekeka.

Trylinski said the education component of the Nutrition North program also needs review. Currently, she said, money is mostly offered for cooking classes.

"The issue is, if you don't have the food available to support those cooking classes, the cost is very high," she said, adding the money would be better spent on helping communities buy seeds and gardening tools.