'Tokenism and optics': Inuit orgs slam feds on Nutrition North consultations

Canada's Inuit organizations have pulled out of the federal government's Indigenous Working Group on food security, saying the structure is disrespectful to Inuit rights.

Organizations say structure of federal government's working group is disrespectful to Inuit rights

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Obed told CBC News that 'by participating in this structure, we were giving a false impression and also giving [the federal government] speaking points to say Inuit, in some way, approve and support any changes that come to the Nutrition North program.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

All five of Canada's major Inuit organizations have pulled out of the federal government's Indigenous Working Group on food security, saying the government is not listening to them in its review of the Nutrition North program, CBC News has learned.

The organizations — Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, Makivik Corporation, and the Nunatsiavut Government — pulled out of the working group in April.

The reason given was because the group was not a space where Nutrition North Canada officials were willing to listen to recommendations for Inuit-specific changes to the program, according to a letter sent to Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, who at the time was also the minister of Northern Affairs. Dominic LeBlanc has since been handed that portfolio, which contains the Nutrition North file.

Inuit regions believed this was not a productive space.- Natan Obed

The letter, signed by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, says the organizations' experience with the working group "does not embody the constructive distinctions-based relationship that is necessary between the federal government and Inuit for meaningful program improvements."

"Inuit regions believed this was not a productive space," Obed told CBC News.

"We also believe by participating in this structure, we were giving a false impression and also giving [the federal government] speaking points to say Inuit, in some way, approve and support any changes that come to the Nutrition North program."

The federal government has often boasted about its renewed relationship with Inuit. Even just weeks after Inuit groups pulled out of the working group, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the House of Commons lauding the importance of distinctions-based approaches when drafting policy affecting Inuit.

But Obed says that same working relationship Inuit have seen on other files — such as tuberculosis and housing — has been the exact opposite on the Nutrition North file. He's not sure why.

"The fact is we have not participated in this review in any respectful way, and we call on the federal government to reset its process to ensure that Inuit can be central players in the review of the Nutrition North program," Obed said, adding they want more transparency and accountability when it comes to food subsidies.

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      'Tokenism and optics'

      Updating and expanding the Nutrition North program was a Liberal election promise in 2015. Since then, the government has expanded the program to include 37 more northern communities.

      Last year, it unveiled a new report, based off a yearlong series of 18 community visits across the North to gather feedback on the program.

      The Indigenous Working Group was launched in May 2017, encompassing representatives from all Indigenous groups. But there were red flags from the start, according to officials in Inuit organizations.

      "From the very get go, we found that it wasn't a distinctions-based process," said Shylah Elliott, health policy analyst for Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, who's worked closely on the Nutrition North review.

      "They weren't really looking for any meaningful consultation on the matters. It was clear that they had an idea of where this was going and whether or not we were in agreement it was going forward."

      N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod and Northern Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc during the minister's stop in Yellowknife in August 2018. (Submitted by Vincent Hughes/Intergovernmental Affairs, Northern Affairs and Internal Trade)

      Even after leaving the group and expressing a desire for a working relationship with a specific approach for Inuit, Elliott said there's been no response from Nutrition North Canada.

      "Nutrition North employees expressed: 'well, if you guys don't want to be at the table, it's going to move forward anyhow,'" Elliott said, adding she's "lost all hope" to see meaningful change to the program before the next federal election.

      "And that was basically what we had felt all along. That it was just tokenism and optics to have this Indigenous working group so they can justify the changes that they want to make, or just show that they are being responsive in some way."

      Nutrition North officials did not respond to the CBC's request for an interview.

      'Federal government has not taken this issue seriously'

      Asked whether it's a double-edged sword for Inuit on wanting to be consulted but removing themselves from the process that's been set out, Obed said moving forward in such a structure is dangerous.

      "If the federal government creates structures that disrespect Inuit and our rights, then by participating in those structures we are doing a disservice to Inuit," Obed said.

      "We have clearly articulated a solution to this particular problem, and the federal government has not taken this issue seriously."

      Northern Affairs Minister LeBlanc was unavailable for an interview Thursday, but in a statement he said the government works meaningfully with all parties on food security in the North.

      "Inuit organizations have an important and unique perspective to offer to Nutrition North Canada," LeBlanc said.

      "The expertise and knowledge provided by Inuit organizations through the 2016 engagement process, and the successive stakeholder and Indigenous working group meetings, have been vital to the development of innovative and thoughtful solutions that will make Nutrition North Canada more relevant for all Northerners."

      LeBlanc will be on CBC Radio's The House on Saturday morning to address the concerns. The episode airs Saturday, Oct. 20 at 9 a.m.

      About the Author

      Nick Murray

      Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked two Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.