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Eeyou Istchee moves closer to regulating milk prices

BY Ben Powless May 24, 2022

Eeyou Istchee is moving toward the minimum and maximum prices on milk that the rest of Quebec already enjoys. The initiative from the Cree Nation Government’s Social and Cultural Development department and the Cree Health Board responds to recent price hikes that reduce the affordability of nutritious foods.

Most of the province is subject to regulated milk prices under the Régie des marchés agricoles et alimentaires du Québec (RMAAQ). As of December 1, Waswanipi, Oujé-Bougoumou and Mistissini are included in the legislation.  

Milk prices are currently highest in the Magdalen Islands and on the Lower North Shore. Prices are then highest in Cree communities and neighbouring areas across Abitibi-Temiscamingue.

A 2017 letter to the RMAAQ from former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and then-Health Board chairperson Bella Petawabano noted average milk prices in Eeyou Istchee were two dollars higher than elsewhere. 

They added that many Cree families consume ultra-high temperature milk, such as Grand Pré, which uses a pasteurization process that gives a longer shelf life. However, UHT milk is not covered by milk pricing laws.

CNG Social and Cultural Development Director Rodney Mark said representations to the RMAAQ led to the ruling to include Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini and Waswanipi in the regulated pricing system. It is up to each of the three communities to accept the decision, Mark noted. 

“Whether the communities accept or not, the idea is that after they have made their decision, we would explore the idea of having a Cree Nation approach. The other six communities – the coastal ones and Nemaska – aren’t included because of distance and transportation costs,” he explained. “The next stage is to make an argument for all communities, for the CNG to argue for their own region.”

Mark is unsure how milk prices would change, or who subsidize transportation and retail costs. Ironically, Whapmagoostui already has the lowest milk price in the region, because it is subsidized by the Nutritious North Canada Program that other communities are ineligible for.

The milk industry objected to including Cree communities in the RMAAQ because of transportation costs, Mark observed. 

With only 20,000 people, Mark argued the Cree population isn’t a “huge dent” to the industry. After Goose Break, he plans presentations to Cree communities about how the law could be applied and implemented, and he hopes to get things moving within the next few months. 

A 2016 CHB report said prices across Eeyou Istchee for a standard “Nutritious Food Basket” were the highest in the province and were 30% higher than nearby Jamesie and 40% higher than Montreal. Within Eeyou Istchee, Eastmain was identified as the most expensive for groceries. 

“Purchasing basic nutritious foods represent a great proportion of the income of single-parent families and low-income families. Eating well seems to be out of reach for low-income families. This is of great concern, especially since about a quarter of the families of Eeyou Istchee live with a low income,” the report pointed out.

“Milk is a basic nutritious food item that should be available and affordable to all families throughout Eeyou Istchee,” insisted Chantal Vinet-Lanouette, a public health nutritionist with the CHB and an author of the study. 

“It is good source of protein, calcium and vitamin D, and generally easily accessible. In Quebec, RMAAQ regulates the minimum and maximum price of milk, and we hope that by including Cree communities, milk can be affordable for families.”

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.