Nutrition North finally gets the boost it needs, says former N.W.T. MP

After spending years fighting to improve the Nutrition North food subsidy program, former N.W.T. MP Dennis Bevington says he's happy to see the program finally getting more financial support, but says there are still problems to be fixed.

Liberals commit more than $77 million to program in this week's federal budget

Now former NDP MP Dennis Bevington speaks about the government's nutrition program for northern Canada during a news conference in April, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

After years fighting to improve the Nutrition North food subsidy program in Parliament, former N.W.T. MP Dennis Bevington says he's happy to see the program getting more money — but says there are still problems that need to be fixed. 

The new federal budget commits $64.5 million over five years for the Nutrition North program, starting in 2016–2017, as well as $13.8 million per year ongoing to expand the program to all Northern isolated communities.

"To see that we're going to get money for those 50 communities that we identified were not receiving the proper subsidy, or no subsidy at all, I'm really happy about that," said Bevington.

A question of fairness

In April, Bevington, along with a group of NDP MPs representing Northern regions, announced their party's proposal to fix the highly-criticized Nutrition North program.

The proposal included incorporating 50 remote, fly-in communities in Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, the N.W.T., Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario into the Nutrition North program

According to Bevington, expanding the program was a question of fairness. Critics of Nutrition North have complained about wide disparities in subsidy levels between fly-in communities.

"For example, Lutselk'e in the N.W.T., the average subsidy for food there was working out to $10 per person per year, and that compares with $1,700 per person per year in Nunavut," he said.

"So we're going to see some fairness coming out of the numbers if the Liberals follow through with this."

More money still needed

Bevington says the amount of money the Liberals have committed to expanding the program is sufficient, at least for now.

"The research that we did last year said that to bring the 50 communities we identified up to a decent level of food subsidy was going to cost about $7 million a year. So $13 million should be adequate."

But, Bevington said, the overall program budget still needs to be increased to reflect inflation rates. 

"That $64.5 million represents the amount of money that was in the program for the last number of years," said Bevington. 

"We felt that number needed to be increased, because it wasn't adequate to cover the existing communities in the program to cover their cost of living increases." 
Orange juice is particularly expensive because of its weight -- the heavier, the more it costs to fly to communities with no road access to the rest of Canada. (David Common/CBC)

Direct subsidies preferable

While Bevington is mostly happy about the money the Liberals have committed in the budget, he says it's going to take more than additional funding to deal with problems intrinsic to the program and to determine the best way to provide a subsidy.

Under the current program, money is given directly to retailers. That's raised concerns about how exactly the government can know retailers are actually passing on the subsidy.

Last June, the Conservative government modified the program to address those concerns, making it mandatory for retailers to make profit margin information available to independent auditors for compliance reviews.

But Bevington said those concerns still exist and "can only be solved by a more independent review than anything that was done by the Conservative government."

Ultimately, Bevington wants to see a program that directly subsidizes the consumer.

"In the United States they provide consumers with cards that are used in conjunction with their purchase of groceries to bring the price down, so the consumer themselves controls the subsidy."

Bevington says a program like that would not only protect the consumer, but also "would ensure ensure that the subsidy is only applied to those that actually live in the North and not those that are temporarily there or on business expenses."