Canadian Government Updates Nutrition North

Food Insecurity is high in many northern communities and it can be challenging to get fresh food. (Photo: Mieke Coppes)

The Canadian Government has, two years after consulting northerners, come out with their changes to the controversial Nutrition North program.

The Canadian North is a region with high food insecurity. For example, Nunavut, according to a non-governmental organization called Feeding Nunavut, “has the highest food insecurity rate of any indigenous population in a developed country.” This high rate of food insecurity stems from various causes including remote communities, limited infrastructure, colonialism, and more.  The Canadian government has several programs in place to try and mitigate the high cost of food in remote northern communities. One of the main programs that is designed to help is Nutrition North. Yet there has been wide criticism around this program.

In 2016, the federal government engaged in a process which reviewed the program. The full report of this review can be found here. The report documents many of the problems that northerners have with how the program is run, including that, “even with the program, many families are not able to afford healthy food. Consistently throughout the engagement, it was heard that NNC (Nutrition North Canada) subsidy is not having a big enough effect on the price of food.” On December 10th the federal government released their updates to the Nutrition North program.

Updates to Nutrition North

Three main improvements have been listed by the federal government: “a fully revised subsidized foods list, which includes a focus on northern staples and family-friendly items; a new highest-level subsidy rate specifically for milk, frozen fruit, frozen vegetables, infant formula, and infant food; and an increase to the two current subsidy rates to help further lower cost of perishable, nutritious food.”

This announcement comes on the heels of the fall fiscal update which proposed an additional $62.6 million over five years for Nutrition North. Within this funding, a new Harvesters Support Grant is included.  This grant is designed to help lower the costs of traditional hunting and harvesting, thus recognizing the important role that traditional/country food plays in creating food security in the Canadian North.

Nellie Cournoyea, Chair of the Nutrition North Canada Advisory Board and former premier of the Northwest Territories commented, “Throughout the public engagement process, Northerners most often expressed the need for further support for traditional harvesting. That is why we particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce a Harvesters Support Grant to help lower the high costs associated with traditional hunting and harvesting activities.”

The changes come after 20 community meetings that took place in late 2016 and early 2017.  The importance of listening to northerners about their concerns was evident in the comments made by the federal government. The Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade said, “the improvements we have brought to the subsidy rates, the food eligibility list, as well as the support for country food all come from our discussions with Northerners. Together, we will work to put in place solutions developed by Northerners for Northerners.”

The final change that came with the recent update was the creation of a Working Group on Food Security with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and Inuit Regions.  This working group with help co-develop the Harvesters Support Grant.

Response to the Updates

There has been wide criticism of the Nutrition North program in the past, from northerners, but also from the federal government. It was earlier this year that five Inuit groups pulled out of a federal working group on food security. And it was only a month ago that Minister LeBlanc was quoted saying, “ I have a sense that the program (Nutrition North), to be blunt, has sort of lost its way.”

These updates have brought forward a cautious optimism from northerners who are hoping that changes can help the region.

Natan Obed, the head of ITK, said in an announcement that, “Inuit food insecurity happens despite Nutrition North being in place, and despite Canada being one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We welcome the federal government’s willingness to establish an Inuit specific food security working group.”  He further adds, “Our expectation going forward is that the federal government will work jointly with Inuit through the recently announced Inuit Crown bilateral process on food security to make the necessary and foundational systemic changes to NNC so it evolves into an accountable, transparent social program that reduces food insecurity in Inuit communities”

Aluki Kotierk, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), the legal body representing Inuit in Nunavut,  made this statement on the update, “Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction. But much more is needed to reform the Nutrition North Program to ensure full subsidies are being passed to consumers. This includes working collaboratively with Inuit on the issue of food insecurity in the North. NTI acknowledges the NNC program cannot address food insecurity on its own in fact, to sustain improvements, the discussion must include achieving a representative Inuit workforce.”

To learn more about the Nutrition North program, see the Government website