Amazon Prime does more for northern food security than federal subsidies, say Iqaluit residents

Despite government food subsidy programs, people in Iqaluit can often find groceries cheaper online than in local stores.

Parcel shipping via Canada Post to Iqaluit increasing at 2 to 3 times the national rate

Residents line up at the mail counter in Iqaluit, one of the busiest post offices in Canada. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

The consensus in Iqaluit seems to be that everyone with a credit card has an Amazon Prime membership. That's because people can often find groceries cheaper online than in local stores, despite government food subsidy programs.

"Amazon Prime has done more toward elevating the standard of living of my family than any territorial or federal program. Full stop. Period," a local principal, who declined to speak further, said on Facebook.

Pampers on the shelf at Northmart in Iqaluit. On Amazon, similar size boxes are around $35. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

With an annual fee of about $80, Amazon Prime members can get free and faster shipping.

In 2015, Amazon re-evaluated its shipping to remote locations and dropped many Nunavut communities, but kept Iqaluit. Now, Iqalummiut live in perpetual fear that they will be next to get cut off by Amazon.

"We'd be limping," said Rhoda Cunningham outside the post office in June.

"It would be very, very bad, I don't want to say pandemonium, but maybe something akin to that," said David Marineau-Plante, after picking up his mail.

Many in town rely on the service for everything from deodorant to hardware supplies to non-perishable food.

Alookie Itorcheak said she's been using Amazon for four years, to make being a mom more affordable.

A box of 180 Pampers costs about $70 off the shelf in Iqaluit; on Amazon, similar size boxes are around $35.

Diapers are not covered by Nutrition North, the federal program that gives subsidies to northern retailers. It was one of many items dropped from the eligibility list when the government replaced the former Food Mail program with Nutrition North in 2011.

Post office sees spike in orders

Many hold out hope that the sheer number of orders from Iqaluit spared the city from Amazon's first round of service cuts.

Canada Post says the Iqaluit post office is one of the busiest in the country and parcel shipping to the remote office is increasing at two to three times the national average.

Iqaluit residents Joanna Awa and Paul Crowley pick up Amazon Prime packages at the post office. (Meg Wilcox)

In the first five months of 2017, the post office delivered 88,500 parcels.

That's an increase of 27 per cent over last year and averages out to around 12 packages per person in Iqaluit.

While those numbers aren't specific to Amazon orders, Marineau-Plante, peeking behind the post office counter, estimates 80 to 90 per cent of the parcels bear the Amazon logo.

Not a long-term solution

But the president of the society that runs Iqaluit's soup kitchen points out that neither Nutrition North nor Amazon are designed to help those most in need.

Wade Thorhaug would like to see a long-term solution to Nunavut's food price problem. (CBC)

Wade Thorhaug, with the Qayuqtuvik Society, said families with bad or no credit can't order online or spend thousands at a time to ship large quantities of food by sealift each summer.

"If there was something that was more targeted towards people who are genuinely food insecure that would have a bigger impact in the community," he said.

Nutrition North is under review after a report published at the end of April showed the program fails to make healthy food affordable.

"It's completely unacceptable that so many northerners are still struggling to feed their families," Carolyn Bennett, the minister for Indigenous and northern affairs, said in question period on June 16.

Her department would not comment for this story, nor would Amazon.

Thorhaug says he's "baffled" by how Amazon ships heavy items, like flour, with no markup. He doesn't think relying on it is a long-term solution.

"I think that's wishful thinking, somebody somewhere is looking at the numbers and whether we talk about it or not, it's eating into somebody's profits."

But the mentality persists in the community, that if people don't talk about the deals, perhaps the city can fly under the radar.

"We joke with our friend — she's ordered furniture and appliances from them," Shirley Flack told CBC News outside the Iqaluit post office.

"We keep telling her that's it's going to be her fault when they stop sending us things."