Nutrition North food subsidy program under fire

Politicians from across the North have banded together to slam the federal government's new Nutrition North Canada program, saying it is leading to rising food prices in many remote communities.

Northern politicians tell Ottawa food costs have spiralled in many communities

Politicians from across the North have come together in a scathing letter to the federal government about the Nutrition North Canada program.

Members of the legislative assemblies from Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Quebec and Labrador wrote the letter to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

The MLAs slam the program, which is supposed to make healthy food more affordable in remote northern communities. They say it has contributed to increased prices for many goods, has made it more difficult for people in the North to make personal food orders and has diminished consumers' ability to choose what they eat.

"It is our view that the NNCP is not meeting its objectives in their entirety to ensure that nutritious foods and essential household products are more accessible and affordable to northern communities, homes and families," the MLAs wrote in the letter.

The politicians lay out their concerns and make specific demands for change to the program.

The Nutrition North Canada program (NNCP) replaced the Food Mail program, which gave transportation subsidies to lower the food prices to communities without regular road or marine access.

Under the new program, the subsidies go to retailers who negotiate freight rates for lower costs. Those savings are supposed to be passed on to consumers.

Since the change, prices for certain items have skyrocketed in many remote northern communities.

New program a 'step backwards'

Norman Yakeleya, who represents the Sahtu for the Northwest Territories, said the new program is a step backwards in ensuring healthy food is more affordable for Canadians who live in the North.

"Right now, our concerns are falling on deaf ears. We are basically at the mercy of our one or two stores," he wrote.

He said his constituents feel their choices have been stomped out since some stores say they will no longer do personal orders.

Darius Elias, MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin in Yukon, said the cost increases since the new program was implemented are unacceptable.

'Right now, our concerns are falling on deaf ears.'—Norman Yakeleya, Sahtu MLA, Northwest Territories

"In Old Crow, a 50-kilogram Level 1 personal order shipment now costs approximately $96 under the NNCP and the same shipment used to cost $40.75 under the old Food Mail Program," he said.

Elias added that overhaul should have made the subsidy program better, not worse.

He said the solution would be to ensure the new program has a personal shipping transportation subsidy from Whitehorse to Old Crow, Yukon. He said any tax on shipping personal orders should be paid by the program instead of the residents of Old Crow.

Quttiktuq MLA Ron Elliott, who represents some of Nunavut’s most isolated communities, said there needs to be better oversight, audit and enforcement mechanisms to ensure retail food pricing is transparent. He said the subsidy list also needs to be expanded and access to country food should be improved.

Labrador House of Assembly member Randy Edmunds said some of the increases his community has seen have been as high as 250 per cent.

Luc Ferland, who represents Kuujjuaq at the Assemblée nationale du Québec, highlighted similar concerns in his riding.

The federal government has had to revise the program once already. In March, the government backtracked and added some items it had originally cut from the subsidy list. Those items will remain on the subsidy list until October.