A new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reveals that food insecurity in northern Canada skyrocketed after a policy change under the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
Under the Harper program Nutrition North, those who did have not enough money to cover basic food costs rose from 33.1% in 2010 to 46.8% in 2014.
Opposition parties and Indigenous groups heavily criticized Nutrition North at the time for changing the supply delivery system in regions like Nunavut, where this study’s data was largely drawn. The Harper government eliminated the Food Mail Program, under which shipments were delivered on planes operated by Canada Post. Food Mail subsidized a wide variety of foods and non-food necessities, such as laundry detergent, feminine hygiene products, skidoo and ATV repair parts and other consumer items.
According to one of the study’s two authors, Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, “This change wasn’t meant to help people.”
Fafard St-Germain said that she went through all of the available data from government publications, and it became clear that the switch from Food Mail to Nutrition North worked as a major cost-cutting measure. Given the growing costs of Food Mail as a result of population growth and the rising cost of fuel, she said that there is little doubt that the priority of Nutrition North was reduce government costs instead of ensuring families received nutritious foods.
The Conservatives claimed that retailers would be more effective at food distribution though there was no evidence or oversight to ensure it.
The Auditor General of Canada castigated Nutrition North in 2013 for not collecting data or ensuring that savings had indeed been passed on to consumers.
Though the most expensive foods have seen some cost reduction over the past eight years, Fafard St-Germain said staple items such flour, laundry detergent, hygiene products and hunting and fishing related gear became far more expensive. That meant that vital traditional foods could become out of reach for some.
The Kashechewan rash outbreak among children in 2016 was initially blamed on the community’s water supply. But after sending physicians into the community, the source of the problem was identified as “poverty and overcrowding.” In Kashechewan, a bottle of detergent at the time cost almost $37.
“When we look at people, they don’t just consume food, there are a lot of other things to meet their basic needs,” said Fafard St-Germain.
In response to the study, Jane Deeks, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said that the Liberal government had committed $64.5 million over five years to Nutrition North starting in the 2016-2017 fiscal year and that the lists of what could be subsidized had been expanded.
Deeks added that an Inuit-Crown Food Security working group was created to focus on food security and to “rebuild trust” as new programs to address these issues are rolled out.