Mr. Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, I am especially pleased to speak to this motion and to update the House on one of the many ways our government is standing up for those living in our northern territories.
This government has been working for northerners like no other government before it. We have devolved the authority over lands and resources in the Northwest Territories out of Ottawa and back to the territorial government where it belongs. Late last year, we announced that we are working on doing the same in Nunavut as well. We pursued the most ambitious regulatory improvement agenda in Canadian history. We know that this will encourage investment in our natural resource industry and drive economic development across the north.
This Monday, legislation came into force creating Polar Knowledge Canada, a brand new, cutting-edge polar science program. This initiative will protect our Arctic sovereignty and ensure that Canada remains a world leader in polar research for years to come.
Put simply, under this government, Canada's north remains and will remain strong, proud, and free.
Continued support for the nutrition north program is just another way that we are helping our northern territories live up to their promise and their potential. Through nutrition north, we are successfully addressing not only the cost of food but the difficulty northerners may face in finding fresh, nutritious food at any price. As we all know, the north is a long way from many sources of perishable foods. Many communities are isolated. Distance and limited transportation options add to the cost. Moreover, often during the time it takes to deliver the food, perishable foods do perish. These are not new problems and ours is not the first government to develop measures aimed at helping northerners lower the cost of nutritious food, although it is undeniably the most successful.
Where results, accountability, and efficiency are concerned, nutrition north Canada represents a substantial and meaningful improvement over its predecessor, the food mail program, which operated in one form or another since the 1960s. The food mail program operated on a fairly simple premise. It provided a subsidy to Canada Post to offset the costs of transporting food to northern communities.
However, the food mail program had a number of weaknesses. First of all, the program was designed to ship mail, not food. There was no real incentive to deliver more nutritious foods to the north. Funding went to less nutritious items and non-food items. There was little accountability for the disposition of program funds. There were no requirements for retailers or transporters to provide their sales information to the department. There was no monitoring in place to ensure that the subsidy was actually being passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices. Adding to its weaknesses and perhaps most concerning of all, there was no governance structure to enable the people in the communities served by the program to provide any meaningful input on its operation or management.
In order to address these and other shortcomings of the food mail program, in April of 2011 our government launched the program that we are discussing today. Since that initial launch, based on input from sources as varied as the Auditor General of Canada to northerners themselves, we have continued to refine the program to maximize the benefits to northerners.
The aim of nutrition north Canada is straightforward: to work with stores across the north and food suppliers in southern Canada to ensure that northerners have better access to perishable, nutritious food at prices that are lower than would otherwise be the case.
Unlike its predecessor, nutrition north Canada follows a market-driven model. This provides an efficient, cost-effective and transparent means of helping northerners access perishable nutritious food. Rather than subsidizing transportation costs, the program provides funding directly to retailers, wholesalers, and distributors. If they meet the program's requirements, they proceed to enter into agreements with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
In addition to its emphasis on perishable nutritious foods and again unlike its predecessor, the current program also offers a subsidy for country food produced in government-regulated northern commercial food processing plants. This subsidy can be applied when northern retailers source country food from these processors for sale in local stores. In this way, the program is helping to make more country foods available.
Country foods—Arctic char, caribou, muskox, and others—are a vital food source, and the Government of Canada is committed to helping these foods remain a key part of northerners' diets. In addition, as I am certain hon. members are aware, these foods generally contain less fat and sugar than many store-bought foods. They contribute important nutrients for good health. Indeed, a diet including country foods has been associated with lower levels of heart disease and diabetes.
Is the program working? Is nutrition north providing the kinds of benefits to northerners it was designed to provide? Are food prices lower? Is there improved access to perishable, more nutritious foods?
The answer in every case is unequivocally yes.
Between March 2011 and March 2014, the cost of the revised northern food basket for a family of four in communities eligible for a full subsidy under the program fell by an average of 7.2%. For that average family of four, that is a savings or more than $30 a week, nearly $140 a month, or $1,600 a year. This is $1,600 a year that our government is saving northern Canadians. Of course, this comes in addition to the thousands more that northerners will save thanks to our government's suite of family tax cuts and benefits.
On the basis of these numbers alone, I would say there is ample evidence that the program is making a real difference for northerners, and it has been making a difference from the beginning.
In November 2011, just seven months after the program was launched, Michael McMullen, the executive vice-president of the North West Company, said:
Local shoppers are starting to see major price decreases on key, nutritious food items. As an example, in Hall Beach four-litre milk has dropped in price by over six dollars, from $11.49 to $5.09. Compared to low-nutrition beverages like soft drinks, milk is now 80% cheaper on a same portion basis.
Mr. McMullen is not the only one to say that food prices in the north have fallen thanks to nutrition north. In fact, earlier this week the member for Churchill, the NDP's aboriginal affairs critic, said that there is no question that it does reduce the price by a couple dollars, and that for healthy foods that can make somewhat of a difference.
I would say to the member and to the House that a price reduction of a couple of dollars on a couple of nutritious food items , over a couple of shopping trips does not make “somewhat” of a difference; it makes a real difference, a significant difference.
Let me offer a few more examples.
In Rankin Inlet in March 2011, before nutrition north Canada, a dozen eggs cost $4.39. As of last November, a dozen eggs cost $2.59, which is 40% lower. Two litres of 2% milk cost $7.29 in March 2011. Last fall, that was down to $4.45, which is also 40% lower. A loaf of bread in Rankin Inlet is now going for about $2.50, which is $1.70 less than the $4.19 it cost before this program
In Tuktoyaktuk last November, a three-pound bag of apples went for $9.29, which is $2.40 less than what it would have cost before nutrition north Canada was launched.
The program is having a positive impact on more than prices. The average annual weight of eligible items shipped to northern remote communities increased by approximately 25% over the first three years of the program
Based on the most recent analysis done in March of last year, 95% of the nutrition north Canada subsidy is going toward lower prices for key, specific product categories: fruits and vegetables, meat and alternatives, milk, and perishable dairy and grain products. That increase in shipments of perishables is a direct result of the market-based model our government put in place for this program
Under the old food mail program, food was delivered to retailers by Canada Post, period. The Canada Post system is designed for delivering mail, not food. If a letter or a parcel arrives a few days later than expected, it is not usually a big deal. However, if a shipment of bananas or lettuce or bread arrives a few days late, it is compost.
With nutrition north Canada, retailers and food suppliers have options when it comes to transportation. They do not have to purchase their products at specific access points designated by Canada Post. They can shop around for the best prices on product and for the best prices on transportation.
In fact, nutrition north Canada allows them to use the most effective and cost-efficient supply chain arrangements and routes to reduce the price of food and provide the best quality. As a result, more perishable nutritious foods are getting to northern communities and more northerners are taking advantage of new accessibility.
A few months ago Derek Reimer, the director of administration at the North West Company, said that sales of fresh produce, meat, and other nutritious foods in its stores have increased by nearly 25% since nutrition north Canada was launched. I am sure all members will be pleased to hear this sort of story, and I can assure them that this government is taking action to see that number go even higher.
Under nutrition north Canada, we have allocated $2.9 million to Health Canada to support culturally appropriate nutrition education initiatives in first nation and Inuit communities. These activities focus on areas such as developing knowledge and skills for selecting and preparing healthy store-bought and traditional country foods. These initiatives act as a complement to the program's retail subsidy by encouraging healthy eating patterns among people in isolated northern communities.
It is clear that nutrition north Canada is achieving its objectives, and we will continue to make it better. Our government has implemented a number of recent improvements to the program. Last fall, we increased the nutrition north Canada annual budget to more than $65 million, an increase of $11.3 million in one year, and we have added a 5% annual escalator to the budget. This means that number will increase by 5% every year from now on to ensure stable, predictable funding long into the future.
It is important to note that these funds are being used responsibly. We are achieving results for northerners and results for all Canadians.
In 2014 the Auditor General reported on nutrition north Canada. I would like to quote some of the findings presented in that report:
Throughout the audit fieldwork, the audit team observed examples of how controls are properly designed and are being applied effectively by NNC. ...
Eligibility assessment criteria and a consistent approach was used to assess recipient eligibility; feedback from users and stakeholders is used as input in making program decisions; and, the program is transparent in reporting performance measurement data and reports measurable results on eligible food item prices and items shipped.
I do not believe these statements describe a program that is in need of a major overhaul. That is not to say we do not believe the program can be even better. The Auditor General did identify areas where improvements could be made.
We recognize the need to continually improve the program in order to ensure that northerners have access to nutritious perishable foods. That is why our government accepted all of the recommendations of the Auditor General, including the need to review the community eligibility criteria for the program. As a result, we are collecting information on isolated northern communities that are not currently eligible to receive subsidies under the program.
The department is currently conducting a detailed review of all northern communities across this country, and this will inform the government's next steps. This is one of the many commitments outlined in our action plan in response to the Auditor General's report. Our goal is to keep improving the program for northerners and to respond to what may be a community's evolving need for a food subsidy.
Also as recommended by the Auditor General—indeed, even before the recommendation was made—the department reviewed and updated the program's performance measurement strategy.
Perhaps the most important investigations of the success of nutrition north Canada are the ones we conduct with the people who are involved personally: the retailers who are providing the service and the northerners who want their families to enjoy a diet of fresh, nutritious foods at a fair price.
The Nutrition North Canada Advisory Board provides advice to the minister on the management, direction, and activities of the program. As the Auditor General has noted, the advisory board is composed of external members who collectively represent a wide range of perspectives and interests of northern residents and communities. They are volunteers. Their loyalty is to northerners, not the minister. The board holds public meetings in communities across the north on a regular basis to gather input and suggestions directly from consumers.
The emphasis that we place on the feedback from the advisory board reflects our understanding that food security in the north is a complex issue and that we must work together with suppliers, retailers and especially northerners themselves if we are to address it successfully. That is what we are doing and the results being achieved by nutrition north Canada make it clear that our approach is working. Prices are down and access to fresh, nutritious foods is up. Just like the rest of our northern strategy, nutrition north Canada is working.
I encourage all members of the House to stand behind the government, support the work that we are doing to strengthen Canada's north, and reject this motion.