Inuit leaders say Nutrition North changes welcome, but more to be done

Inuit leaders welcomed updates to the Nutrition North program on Monday, but say more work needs to be done on the program's transparency.

Gov't says that it will work to better communicate transparency efforts, has begun auditing retailers

Inuit and Nunavut leaders pose with Labrador MP Yvonne Jones at a Nutrition North announcement Monday. The leaders praised the addition of several food items to Nutrition North's subsidy list, but said that work still needs to be done to ensure the savings are being passed on to consumers. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Inuit leaders welcomed updates to the Nutrition North program on Monday, but say more work needs to be done on the program's transparency.

The federal government announced a number of changes, mostly around increasing subsidies and adding more foods to the subsidy list, but provided few changes or details on how to ensure the full subsidy is being passed on to Northerners.

The government also says it wants to do a better job of communicating exactly what it's doing to improve transparency, something officials said they haven't been doing well.

At a news conference Monday in Iqaluit, Elisapee Sheutiapik, Nunavut's minister responsible for poverty reduction, said the territorial government believes the program needs to be redesigned and refocused.

"We've been saying all along it's retailers that are benefiting the most from the program," Sheutiapik said during her remarks.

Elisapee Sheutiapik, Nunavut's Minister responsible for poverty reduction, said that Inuit have 'been saying all along it's retailers that are benefiting the most' from Nutrition North. (David Gunn/CBC)

She later expanded on her comments to CBC News, saying that "putting more money into [the program] ... people's views will be: 'more money is going into the pockets of those handful of retailers.' "

Other Inuit leaders across the North all praised the addition of extra food items and the commitment to a harvester's support program — though few details have been released on how it will work — but all echoed concerns over transparency.

In his statement, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed highlighted that 70 per cent of Nunavut households are food insecure, while approximately $4 out of every $5 of the Nutrition North subsidy is directed to Inuit communities.

"This Inuit food insecurity happens despite Nutrition North being in place, and despite Canada being one of the wealthiest countries in the world," he said.

"Our expectation going forward is that the federal government will work jointly with Inuit ... so it evolves into an accountable, transparent social program that reduces food insecurity in Inuit communities."

Nunavut Tunngavik president Aluki Kotierk also welcomed the changes, although noting Inuit groups were not consulted on them. Many of the changes came from the government's 2016 Northern tour, and Inuit groups walked away from the consultation process in protest in April.

"I think the biggest benefit for us is the commitment to work with us and co-develop the program," Kotierk said, referring to the commitment to form an Inuit-Crown working group on food security, separate from other Indigenous groups.

"And I think that's where we'll be able to influence it so that it's a program that benefits Inuit."

Feds to better communicate transparency efforts

Prior to Monday's formal announcement, government officials held a technical briefing for reporters to go over the details of the announced changes, though officials could not be quoted.

Among the changes included a plan to develop a better communications approach with communities.

At the announcement, Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, the Parliamentary Secretary to Northern Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, said the government has also conducted regular audits of retailers and posted the results online.

The audits began a year ago. Jones said they're conducted every two years and retailers are selected on a "risk based" factor.

During the technical briefing, Nutrition North officials said the audits are done by a third party and require retailers to provide details on their freight and shipping costs, as well as profit margins.

"We have heard concerns around transparency, and we expect and encourage improvements to the program in the future as we continue to work with partners through the Nutrition North Advisory Board, Indigenous Advisory Group and the new Inuit-Crown working group," a spokesperson for LeBlanc said in a statement.

Meanwhile one Iqaluit-based retailer executive says he understands the concern over the perception over a lack of transparency.

"Operating retail, especially in a remote market like this, is not a simple thing," said Duane Wilson, the vice president of stakeholder relations for Arctic Co-operatives Limited.

"This is a whole lot more than just about freight. But there's an awful lot more related to economies of scale. The fact that you're trying to operate a business model that relies on volume."

Critic warns latest updates won't help food prices

While the updated changes won't come into effect until Jan. 1, 2019, a Nutrition North critic doesn't expect higher subsidy rates to have much effect on food prices.

Tracy Galloway is a health researcher at the University of Toronto, and is one of Canada's only academics who publishes on the Nutrition North program.

A bag of flour in Iqaluit in 2017. Flour was one of the foods that received an increased subsidy following Monday's program update, though some are skeptical the savings will make their way to consumers. (CBC)

"Increasing the list of food subsidies, increasing the rate of some of the subsidized items ... that's not going to make a difference," she said, suggesting the North needs regulated food pricing.

"This subsidy framework was put in place in 2011, and we have not seen a decline in prices. If anything, they're going up. And they're going up fastest in places where retailers receive the most subsidy."

Wilson disagrees, saying the latest updates should "absolutely" see prices drop. But he says the effect of the subsidy could be maximized if the government allowed food brought up by sealift to be subsidized, rather than just items flown in.

"Take, for example, some of the very contentious items like diapers and flour. The subsidy only applies to goods flown in. So some of the subsidy is going to be eaten up by the fact that you're subsidizing a higher cost mode of transportation," Wilson said.

In the technical briefing, Nutrition North officials said the overall cost of the Revised Northern Food Basket – which estimates the cost to feed a family of four a healthy diet for one week — has decreased 1.2 per cent since 2011.

But Galloway says there a number of issues with using the Revised Northern Food Basket as a measuring tool — in particular, that it doesn't factor in all subsidized items. 

Galloway also said measuring the Food Basket since 2011 is problematic, because she said the full impact of the program didn't kick in until 2012. From then, she says prices have stayed consistent.


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 three Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.