Edmonton

Rocketing food prices at northern hamlet's only store annoy residents

Residents of Fort Chipewyan, one of Alberta’s northernmost communities, say the cost of food has surged recently, leaving them to fly in their own food.

'We have one store in Fort Chipewyan and they don't care'

Residents of Fort Chipewyan, one of Alberta’s northernmost communities, say they've had to fly in their own food 1:32

It's a weekly ritual for Fort Chipewyan councillor Claris Voyageur — a grocery run before heading to the Fort McMurray airport.

Alongside her luggage she checks-in bags of fresh veggies, meat and flour.

Residents say they are resorting more than ever to flying in their own food rather than buying at the local store.

"Prices have always been high, but the last four of the five months have been worse," Voyageur says as she waits for a scheduled flight to Fort Chipewyan.

Voyageur and other residents say they've noticed food prices have spiked at the community's only supermarket, the Northern Store, particularly when it comes to staples like flour, coffee and sugar.

For example, a 10-kilogram bag of flour used to cost $22. The store confirms it's now $32.

In Fort McMurray, Voyageur bought that same bag for about $8.

"We have one store in Fort Chipewyan and they don't care," Voyageur said.

This October, the community of Fort Chipewyan moved to the federal government's food subsidy program, Nutrition North Canada. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Fort Chipewyan, one of Alberta`s northernmost communities, is accessible by winter ice road from around mid-December until spring breakup, when it then becomes accessible only by air.

Like most northern communities, shoppers say they continually struggle with costly food bills.

This October, the community moved to the federal government's food subsidy program, Nutrition North Canada.

However, the program provides its lowest subsidy for flour, which is common in the diet of many northern communities where homemade bread and bannock are staples.

This gap was noted by residents CBC News spoke with and those who voiced concerns during Nutrition North Canada consultations in the community in October.

In an email, Nutrition North Canada said it's consulting with communities "on how the program can be more transparent, cost-effective and culturally appropriate in the face of growing demand for healthy food in the North."

Fort Chipewyan, one of Alberta's northernmost communities, is usually accessible by winter road from mid-December to spring breakup, when it then becomes accessible only by air. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

'Back to square one'

One of the community's chiefs said seeing these price surges is defeating the purpose of bringing the food subsidy program to his community.

"You're right back to square one again," Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adams said.

From high Arctic communities in Nunavut to the Albertan hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, northern communities have been complaining about high food prices for years. (John Van Dusen/CBC)

The North West Company, which owns the chain of Northern Stores and Northmarts, said each year the company ships up a year's worth of dry goods on the winter road to its Fort Chipewyan store, it said.

Sometimes stores deplete their stock, and that's what happened this year in Fort Chipewyan.

But, for the most part, the company is able to accurately estimate its winter road stock.

"You do your best to forecast product demand, but at times you might not carry enough for the full year," said Derek Reimer, the North West Company's director of business development.

Reimer said it costs more than five times more to restock its shelves by air, and the company tries to minimize the cost of groceries whenever possible.

The company has made a considerable investment in its winter road inventory and warehousing needed to store goods year-round and to reduce costs to consumers, he said. 

'​We learn as we go'

"We learn as we go. For the most part, we still have a large assortment available in our store. It is only a handful of items [not available]," Reimer said.

Since Nutrition North Canada has been introduced, Reimer said it has seen a 8.28-per-cent reduction in retail prices of eligible products, which include meat, dairy and produce.

He said a four-litre carton of milk dropped in price from $16.49 to $9.19, and bananas went from $7.95 per kilogram to $5.49 per kilogram.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation wants to open its own store in the community.

"And we're going to be a competitor to the Northern Store,"  Adams said.

He couldn't say when that might happen, though.

Relief for shoppers may be coming as the community's winter road is expected to open Monday.

That means Voyageur and other shoppers can drive to grocery stores in Fort McMurray, instead of flying out for groceries.

Corrections

  • A quote from Derek Reimer, the North West Company's director of business development, has been clarified for accuracy.
    Dec 17, 2016 10:16 AM MT