Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague the member for Northwest Territories for bringing this motion forward. As I said earlier, I appreciated the spirit of the motion. It is an acknowledgement that nutrition north as a program is part of the solution.
Having been involved, at the standing committee, in the process of developing the program, and as I recall, working quite co-operatively with members across the way, we came up with a program that would establish a new course for some very admirable goals around food prices, food security, and food quality in the north. What we agreed on at the time was that food prices were, and in fact continue to be, too high and that food security was an issue.
Furthermore, we agreed that the quality of food, for distribution reasons and purchasing options, were things the program should address. In addition, as has been pointed out in earlier parts of the debate, traditional foods and their distribution, and in particular their storage, were elements of a program moving forward that we frankly had not seen.
That makes perfect sense. Having been a nurse who has worked in isolated and remote communities, principally in the great Kenora riding but including northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan, the northern British Columbia coast, Cambridge Bay, and Arviat, I am not unfamiliar, in substance, with the importance of this opportunity.
We learned and we agreed, for example, that the previous program, the food mail program, had serious structural flaws. It was largely confined in its uptake to people who had the means to buy food from cities that typically served the north. Those would be the Edmontons, Winnipegs, Prince Alberts, and Val d'Ors of the world. Importantly, it required a credit or debit card to order food. Certainly, in the time I was working and living in the north, over the span of almost 20 years, there were many people who did not have these financial instruments to order that food. Something needed to change.
I believe that the nutrition north program is not the solution in every instance. There are good reasons for that because of the vastness of the north. I even heard the member for Timmins—James Bay allude to some nuanced community and regional solutions that could fit into the superordinate goal of a strategy that would work to decrease the price of food in the north and increase the quality of food and food security.
Nutrition north brought us to a couple of important pragmatic steps or interventions. The statistics have been put to this place in the debate and in previous discussions, during question period, and as far back as when this was first debated. The first step was reducing the price of a product. Particularly, the prices of categories of nutritional products like milk were reduced in the community. There were signs to let the consumer know what that price reduction would be. Those relationships were formed with the principal suppliers, at the very least, retailers in the community who sell food, and organizations that did the same remotely. That has had a positive effect. We have seen net reductions in the cost of food per month or per annum for families.
This debate is important, as we have now seen that nutrition north has been appreciably been implemented, and as the kinks get worked out we discover, and by way of debate, we can have an important conversation about what next steps nutrition north could, would, and should take.
Let me speak to that in two overarching ways, first with respect to the Auditor General's report and second on an emerging theme in this debate around other options.
I should say that I will be splitting my time with the member for Brampton West, and I appreciate that accommodation.
With respect to the Auditor General's report, one of the things that I was struck by—and, in fact, was waiting for—was his review of this particular program. It highlighted what I would prefer to frame as a number of opportunities that need to be addressed. We accepted those recommendations and we are taking action to address them.
They include reviewing the community eligibility criteria to ensure that they are based on need and reviewing the contribution agreements under the program so that retailers provide all information in a clear and transparent manner. In fairness, I have heard on both sides of the House and from all three parties the importance of that. Of course, the other item is to build on the implementation measures to monitor the program and ensure it is meeting its objectives.
Our approach, then, is twofold. First, we must ensure that each and every remote and isolated community has access to healthy food, including perishables such as fruits and vegetables. This means taking a very hard look at the program to ensure that communities that need access to the subsidy have access to it. Second, we must ensure that communities that are currently part of the program have clear access to information about the subsidies and that retailers pass savings on to the consumer.
Over the coming months, I will continue to work with communities in northern Ontario, a number of which have been listed by this member. Rather curiously, the NDP made what I believe was an unfortunate political choice by issuing a scathing article that I believe attacked me personally. That was not wise, given the reputation and commitment that I have for building schools, nursing stations, police stations, and significant infrastructure in my riding and the credibility that I have garnered over a 20-year career as a nurse, lawyer, and now member of Parliament for those regions.
In fact, I was in Webequie First Nation just a couple of weeks ago and visited a couple of other communities as well. I made some significant infrastructure announcements, notably to improve water and waste water treatment and importantly, in the case of Webequie, to build on the economic prospect it has as a major hub for Ring of Fire with some investments into its airport, which would also create a platform for more commercial activity that would benefit people directly, particularly with respect to commercial products available to them. I believe much of this is happening now.
In some regards this debate today, at least in spirit, as I have said before, is an important and meaningful one. I wish it were not as heavily politicized as it is. I am certainly aware of the first nations communities in my regions and the opportunities that we have. On that note, I will advance the discussion to some of the other distinctly local and regional policy options that are there for good reasons, in addition to nutrition north, and they are important.
What they include has been mentioned earlier. There are community gardens burgeoning in first nations communities. The new horizons program has helped a couple of first nations communities in my riding build community gardens led by elders.
However, I want to close on a policy option that is distinctly for northern Ontario and that I was pleased to support as the minister of FedNor. Chief Donny Morris in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Chief Bull from Lac Seul First Nation joined me earlier this year to support a study to examine and enable regional food distribution.
It was a study that would determine the viability of a regional distribution centre out of Sioux Lookout to increase the purchasing power of a community or of groups of communities for perishable and non-perishable goods. This was done in association with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and supported by the town of Sioux Lookout. By way of example, it represents some solutions.
I want to thank the member for Northwest Territories for bringing this discussion to this place and for the opportunity, as someone who has a rich and deep past living and working in isolated remote communities, particularly in my region, to speak to this important topic.