Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to speak to a very important motion.
I am hoping to pick up on a couple of points, because this is an issue on which I have had previous opportunities to speak, particularly the issue of milk. I hope to spend a bit of time on that particular issue in my comments this afternoon, because I did so while I was a member of the Manitoba legislature. People will understand and appreciate the relevance as I get to it.
Where do I start? I would suggest that maybe a good starting point might be the attitude the government has toward the north, particularly if we look at the nutrition north program. This is not a program that has been running for decades but, rather, a program that the Conservatives brought in a few years after they were elected.
I would argue that the reason they brought it in was not because the old program was not working. Programs do need modifications over time. The food mail program, from what I understand, was fairly well received. Does it mean that it was a perfect program? No one will say it was a perfect program, but it had merit, and as with any national program, we can always look for ways to improve upon it.
A number of years ago, the government made the decision that it wanted to communicate a message with that Conservative spin that routes out of the Prime Minister's Office and try to give an impression. It wanted to give the impression that it wanted to provide more food, healthier food, to northern Canada through government subsidy, so it came up with a program it calls nutrition north Canada.
On paper it looks great. Some might even suggest it is a little sexier a headline than the food mail program, but that is something the government has been known to do for photo opportunities and props, the naming and titling of bills and so forth.
Here the Conservatives have come up with a new name. They put the Conservative brand on it as opposed to trying to change and modify some of the areas in which the old program could have been improved.
It is much like having the member for Yukon stand in his place and talk about how great our Prime Minister is. After all, he has travelled more in the north than any other prime minister. I will not necessarily buy into the facts of that particular statement, but I will say that the Prime Minister, whenever he travels up north, makes sure that the rest of Canada is aware of it, through wonderful, expensive, taxpayer-expensed photo ops.
Many of my colleagues would argue that if some of the money used for those photo opportunities were reprioritized for food, we would probably have that much better a program. I am a bit suspicious about the government's true intentions on the program.
Some of the members say that the program is healthier, and they use one or two examples. The Auditor General of Canada pointed out that the nutrition north program pays for bacon. I would not rank bacon at the same level as milk or other fresh produce, but that is something the government subsidizes.
When we look at what the Auditor General really had to say, a couple of things come to mind.
We heard the government talking about savings for consumers. There is no doubt that there are some savings, but let us not kid ourselves. There were savings under the old program too.
The government will say that it compares year over year and that a bag of groceries is less than it was the previous year. However, we have the Auditor General of Canada saying that this is not necessarily accurate. Therefore, we question the numbers being provided. Again, it is not the Liberal Party or New Democrats questioning them. It is the Auditor General of Canada, a truly independent office, calling into question whether the claims the Conservative government is making about year-over-year decreases are factual. The Auditor General is saying that this is not necessarily the case.
We talk about the subsidy and that it is really important to provide it. I do not think there is any member in the House of Commons who would say we should not provide a subsidy. We all recognize the importance of northern Canada. Whether it be the northern tip of provinces, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, or Nunavut, they are all very important to our country, and it is important that all regions of our country are provided the opportunity to have healthy food.
It is important when we talk about northern sovereignty that we substantiate that by ensuring that there are actually people living in northern Canada. For many it is a wonderful, great life, but others might find it more of a challenge. However, there are certain things that government can do to help accommodate an easier lifestyle in terms of affordability of some of the food that is so accessible here in Canada, much of it produced in Canada.
There are things we can do. I suspect that if we were to canvass Canadians as a whole, we would find that there is wide support for having a food subsidy program to help facilitate the lifestyle. It makes sense.
For those who might try to spread misinformation and ask why we in the south should support the north, I suspect that if we looked at the bottom line in terms of where the money is flowing, we would find that the south benefits immensely, economically and socially. I suspect that there is a very high net positive for the south.
In Manitoba, we have the Golden Boy on top of the Manitoba legislature that points to the north, because we believe that is where the real future is in terms of potential for Canada. We are so very much dependent on the north.
I like to think we have established that it is absolutely critical that we provide that subsidy, that assistance, for nutritious foods. However, now the issue is how we make sure we turn that into reality. It is one thing to say that we are going to provide x number of dollars. The parliamentary secretary is here and can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe it is around $60 million. It is a substantial amount of money.
At the end of the day, it is not just the amount of money that is put into the envelope targeted for a particular program; it is how effectively that money is utilized to maximize the benefits of the product that they ultimately want to deliver to the many communities in need of that subsidy.
Once again the Prime Minister and the current Conservative government have been found wanting. They have not been able to clearly establish that they are maximizing the benefits of the tax dollar in terms of actual fresh produce on the tables of northerners. Again, it is not just I or the Liberal Party talking about it; all we have to do is go to the Auditor General of Canada.
Last fall we had a detailed report from the Auditor General, and some of the comments were really interesting. I will quote just a couple of them. It was a CBC news story, and I will quote from it because I want the members opposite to realize that this is not coming from the Liberal Party or from me but from a story that quotes our Auditor General of Canada. It said:
Aboriginal Affairs does not know whether retailers in the North are passing on savings to consumers as a result of its Nutrition North program to make healthy food more affordable in remote northern parts of the country, the federal auditor general has found.
It is one thing to talk about a program and to assign a budgeted amount of tax dollars to it, but it is another thing at the end of the day to actually deliver this absolutely essential program in a way that maximizes the benefits.
In other words, we can put the money in the envelope, but we have to have the follow-through. The Auditor General has been somewhat critical of the government in this area because the government has demonstrated that it does not do the follow-through. It does not even confirm, from what I understand or have been told, that the receipts and paperwork that are being provided to it are in fact verified. These are real, serious, genuine concerns, and the government has again been found wanting. I hope to be able to get back to this point.
However, I mentioned an issue at the beginning of my comments that is really important for me, and it is something that is not new. Today I have been afforded the opportunity to ask a number of questions, and I tried to focus my questions on milk. The reason is that in 2008, as a member of the Manitoba legislature, I had the privilege of introducing Bill 213 on the floor of the Manitoba legislature, and what a privilege it was. The essence of Bill 213 was that the price of milk should be universal in the province of Manitoba, much like the price for alcohol. A bottle of beer costs the same in one community as it does in another.
I talked about why Manitoba had an important role in trying to deal with the issue of milk. I noticed the member for Churchill provided a quote in regard to Tadoule. Here is a price, and this is something I would have said in 2008: “...the four-litre price of milk today in Winnipeg you can get for $3.59.” I do not think it has gone up much since then, but I am not necessarily the best person to ask on it.
This was back in 2008. It was $3.59 for four litres of milk in the city of Winnipeg. In Red Sucker Lake, it was $11.89 in 2008. I know the member for Churchill made reference to Tadoule Lake. I made reference to Tadoule Lake also. It is about as far north as one can go in Manitoba. One would follow the bay virtually all the way up and then kind of cross over, and then one would see Tadoule Lake.
At that time, four litres of milk was $17.40. In Winnipeg it was $3.59. It showed in a very real and tangible way the difference in the cost of living.
Members may be somewhat familiar with many of the different issues that face my province, and I am just talking about milk but in many ways the same principle applies for nutritional food of all sorts. Let us imagine people who with a limited income and have a choice between $17.40 for four litres of milk and a two litre bottle of pop for a couple of dollars, and they have child who is quite often keen on taking the pop.
Far too families are choosing an alternative to milk, not because it is a healthier product or that it is really and truly what they want. In many cases, it is an affordability issue. They are buying a milk alternative because it is a whole lot cheaper. The alternative may not be healthier for the child.
The government has a choice. It can either try to assist the population in certain regions to eat healthier at the beginning, and there is a cost to it, but if that is not done, then there is the potential for a far greater cost at the other end.
The government could check with some of the health care professionals who travel to some of our northern regions. We hear some of the horror stories about children who have virtually all of their teeth eaten away because of sugar. Let us think of the cost of diabetes as a direct result of not having access to or not being able to afford quality nutritional food. The health care costs to society are enormous.
When we talk about a program that costs $60 million and compare it to how much money it could cost at the other end, it is a savings that can be achieved if we are prepared to be more proactive, as much as possible.
It does not mean the Government of Canada has to pony up for everything. There is in fact an argument to be made that the Government of Canada should not only be providing financial assistance or support, but it also needs to be working with the first nations communities, the different provinces, municipalities and the many different stakeholders that live and breathe the issues the north faces on a daily basis to develop a more comprehensive strategy in how to best deliver nutritional food at an affordable cost.
At the end of the day, we will have a healthier population. Everyone will benefit, if we are prepared to do that. However, that takes a great deal of leadership.
We had this discussion in our caucus. The leader of the Liberal Party has a teaching background and has an understanding of the needs of students. When unhealthy kids are in the classroom, it takes away from their ability to focus on their education. If that leads to people dropping out, just think of the cost to the economy, let alone the social aspect of the community.
There is much to lose if we do not get this thing right, and I am not convinced that the government has its priorities right. Yes, it has the nutrition north program and, yes, there is a significant amount of money in that envelope, but there is a lot more to it than just the photo op and putting money into an envelope. There has to be more dialogue and working with others and stakeholders to really have the type of impact that we need to see, not only in our territories, but in many northern regions of our country.