That the House call on the government to take immediate action to fix Nutrition North Canada and to improve the well-being of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians in Northern Canada by: (a) immediately including in the Nutrition North Canada program the 50 isolated Northern communities accessible only by air that are not currently eligible for the full subsidy; (b) initiating a comprehensive review of the Nutrition North program, with Northerners as full partners, to determine ways of directly providing the subsidy to Northern residents and to improve supports for traditional foods; (c) creating equitable program-eligibility criteria for Northern communities based on their real circumstances; (d) providing sufficient funding to meet the needs of all Northern communities; and (e) working with all Northerners to develop a sustainable solution to food insecurity.
Mr. Speaker, as member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories for the past 10 years, this is a wonderful opportunity to speak about the people of the north. That includes the northern parts of provinces and the three territories, the hundreds of communities that stretch across Canada's north.
I grew up in an isolated community. We did not have a road until later on in my life, so I know the difference a transportation system delivers. I understand the intrinsic nature of the problems of people who are isolated and remote. These are the communities we are talking about right now. These are Canadian communities that do not have road access or the ability to be served in a fashion that will allow their costs to be even reasonably close to southern Canada's. These communities are suffering. They will continue to suffer until we can come up with answers that work better for them.
In a great and prosperous country like Canada, no one should go hungry. Unfortunately, for many northern Canadians, that is the case. Some people forego eating in the day so that they make sure their children have sufficient food. These are situations that Canadians respond to with emotion and with a desire to change.
Equality of Canadians is an essential in the fabric of our society. Likewise, northerners know they live in a high-cost part of Canada, but to be equal, the government has to come in and be involved. In addition to pure humanitarianism, helping northerners with their high cost of living, particularly for food costs, enhances Arctic sovereignty. More than that, northerners provide a basis for what the government considers to be the new resource sector in our country, whether it is mining, oil, gas, or any of the other natural resources the government covets in the north. Those people provide a workforce and an opportunity to see those resources developed in a good fashion.
Originally, through the past decade up until 2010, we had the food mail program. That program had accelerating costs. In 2011, nutrition north was dreamt up. The criteria for community participation was so flawed that about 50 isolated fly-in communities were left out of that program.
In his report last fall, the Auditor General said:
We found that the Department has not established community eligibility criteria that are fair and accessible. The Department considered communities eligible if they lacked year-round surface transportation and if they had used the Food Mail Program extensively. Communities that had made very little use of the Food Mail Program were determined to be eligible for only a partial subsidy...
This partial subsidy was 5¢ a kilogram. It did not amount to anything. He went on to say:
...while communities that had not used the previous program were determined to be ineligible. Consequently, community eligibility is based on past usage instead of current need. As a result, there may be other isolated northern communities, not benefiting from the subsidy, where access to affordable, nutritious food may be an issue.
The Auditor General went on to say that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was aware of this problem, and it estimated that it would cost $7 million a year to service these 50 communities. My office conducted research and was able to identify 46 of the communities that should be getting the full subsidy. Twenty-seven of these communities are in ridings represented by Conservative members of Parliament. Nineteen communities are in the member for Kenora's riding. Where was the member during his last two-and-a-half years as parliamentary secretary to the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development? Could he not have spoken to the minister about the need facing these communities in his riding? Then again, there were other members that failed to stand up and speak for their communities.
Because these communities need any help they can get, the first part of the New Democratic motion is, “immediately including in the nutrition north Canada program the 50 isolated northern communities accessible only by air that are not currently eligible for the full subsidy”. However, including these communities is simply an emergency solution. Including these communities would bring them up to the level of the other communities. That is fine. That is a start toward success. It is only the start, but it is a necessary start.
We need to be fair in this country. We need to treat every community the same. We need to understand that every community has similar requirements for these subsidies, regardless of their past history.
Another problem found by the Auditor General is that there is no way for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to determine if the subsidy is being passed on to northerners by retailers. This is a central flaw in the program. While professing to help northerners access affordable and nutritious food, what nutrition north really does is subsidize the selling of food to northerners and to anyone else who goes into their stores.
Rather than providing assistance to businesses, it might be better to look at the systems used in other countries for food subsidies. One possible solution might be to actually subsidize consumers. In the United States, the women, infants, and children program, a very successful program initiated by the federal government, goes across all states. That program is accessible by people through a swipe card.
We are not here today to decide on the long-term solution for this issue. However, we need to establish a process to work with northerners to come up with a long-term solution, and that is part of our resolution as well.
Another part of the motion calls on the government to initiate a comprehensive review of the nutrition north program, with northerners as full partners, to determine ways to provide the subsidy to northern residents and also to support the use of traditional foods. Throughout the small communities, the traditional way of providing sustenance was through hunting, trapping, fishing, and gardening, in many cases. Those were ways communities provided food in days gone by and that need to be supported now to make them more successful.
The nutrition north program was poorly thought out to begin with. For a government that says it supports the north, it fails to work with northerners, or even listen to them. I could be talking about the opposition to the changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act or to the bill that was passed yesterday, Bill S-6, in which the government simply rode over the valid concerns of many Yukoners.
The same thing could be said about nutrition north. There is a growing groundswell of people speaking up about the program and saying that it is not successful. For instance, the Auditor General found that aboriginal affairs had spoken to Health Canada about what food should go in the subsidy but seemed to have ignored northerners and what food they think should be covered.
When I was in Iqaluit, I met with the people who were engaged in trying to work on this program through raising public awareness about it, and they told me one interesting fact: most of the people in Nunavut, the Inuit people, are lactose intolerant. The fact that the government has made milk a large part of their particular program means that many of them will not pick up on that subsidy, because they cannot use milk the way many southern people or Caucasians use that product. Therefore, that subsidy is not actually as valid as it should be for that particular group of people. That is why we are calling for more support for traditional food. That is part of what has to happen.
As I noted, the current nutrition north criteria exclude a large number of communities that should be receiving the full subsidy. The current criteria seem to be shaped more toward excluding communities than toward ensuring that all northerners have access to affordable nutritious food.
Part of what was going on with the nutrition north program, as the Auditor General pointed out, was that there were to be yearly reviews of eligibility and how the program was working. We have not seen those yearly reviews in the four years the program has been put in place. How was the government to determine that the program was working properly if it did not do the reviews?
It is a very significant and important program dealing with the health of many northerners. The result of not dealing with it correctly means that other costs in the system have gone up. Perhaps they do not mind that the costs for health, education, and the social costs that go with poverty and the failure to have a proper lifestyle are costs that are borne by other governments. Perhaps the current federal government has not been that concerned about them.
We know that many other communities in the country that have year-round road access have very high food costs. If they are hauling food from the southern United States or Mexico to Inuvik, the costs are very high. These costs have to be borne by northerners living in these communities, not all of whom have high-paying jobs.
Because of the poorly thought-out community eligibility criteria, we are calling on the government to create equitable program eligibility criteria for northern communities based upon their real circumstances.
Many of the communities are very small communities. The cost of running retail stores is very high. They cannot avoid that problem. They cannot avoid the problem of the cost of fuel, which has been inflated by almost 400% over the last decade throughout northern Canada. They have to deal with that problem, as well, in a small community.
They cannot expect that using single criteria, the freight rate, and whether they were in the program before is good enough to determine how a community should receive the subsidy.
A comparison of expenditures under the last years of the food mail program with those allocated under nutrition north shows that the Conservatives have been deliberately underfunding the program. In the last two years of the food mail program, the cost was about $59 million. That was up from four years earlier, when the cost was $39 million.
We saw a rapidly accelerating cost for the food mail program. Why was that? It was because all the other costs throughout northern Canada were going up. The Auditor General indicated that the inflationary cost of food in the north was double the rate it was in southern Canada. In the food mail program, where the Conservatives did not really have a hold on the costs, there was an accelerating cost.
However, in the four years of the nutrition north program, the original allocation each year was $53 million. It was topped up, but it never showed much increase over those years in comparison with what was being put into the food mail program.
I think we can safely say that this program has been underfunded since its inception. The indications from the Conservative government were that it would now increase the funding by 5% a year. However, it has not put the money in to catch up to where the program should be. If the program was in place for four years without inflationary figures attached to it, then funding should start at a much higher level before it starts adding the 5% per year.
This shows either poor planning or a deliberate attempt to lowball the program's costs. For that reason, part of this motion is that we call on the government to provide “....sufficient funding to meet the needs of all Northern communities.”
This is what is required. I think back to when I first came to Parliament. I was working on the northern residents' tax deduction, which was a program in 1989. The argument from all northerners was that the program had been in place for many years and they had seen no increase in the amount of the northern residents' tax deduction. Everyone said that inflation should put about 50% into that program. The late minister Jim Flaherty, in his 2007 budget, put in 10%, and there has been nothing since.
What we have seen is that program, which was very important to northerners, which worked very well to encourage people to live and work in the north, and to develop all the things the Conservative government thinks are very important, like mines, oil and gas, and all the rest, has not been allowed to increase, simply to keep up to the rate of inflation.
The rate of inflation in the north is very high. In southern Canada for people heating with natural gas, the cost is pretty well the same as it was a decade ago. In the north, the same people using energy are looking at a 400% increase in their costs. It is a cold place and houses need to be heated. We need an increase in funding to this program, like other programs that are not tied to inflation. People cannot escape those costs. Those costs are part of a system that we live in.
The final point I have is we need to stop supporting a southern Canada-style of food delivery system in the north, and develop a system which is northern-based and sustainable.
We need to do more for ourselves. We need to be encouraged. Northern communities across the country need to be encouraged to look for solutions to this as well. Historically there are many large farms throughout the Northwest Territories. They were run by the missions. They produced the vegetables for all the north in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. That is gone now, but it could come back. There are some northern communities, like Inuvik and Norman Wells, that have created greenhouses. They are very successful with their production of food.
We see many opportunities in the renewable area to improve the situation, whether it is energy, food or housing. All those things come together to reduce costs.
When the efforts are put in from somewhere else, it does not allow for that local involvement. When those from outside the north decide what is good for us, that usually results in failure. Keeping this in mind, we call on the government to work with all northerners to develop a sustainable solution to food insecurity.
Nutrition north has many flaws and needs to be reworked with the involvement of northerners. However, until then, it must be expanded to cover all the communities that are now not being covered by that program. That is only fair. We are fair, as Canadians. We believe in equality. We do not stop somebody from applying for a GST rebate because they did not apply for it the year before. Why is that a criteria for northern communities, whether they made use of the food mail system? If they had not made use of the food mail system, they are ineligible for the nutrition north program. That is simply an excuse.
We do not need excuses in the north. We need ways to feed our children, to make our system work, and to have healthy and prosperous communities.