Nunavut MLAs to hold confab on Nutrition North

“People are very confused”


Pages and staff await the opening of Nunavut's Legislative Assembly Feb. 22. MLAs want representatives from the federal government and private sector to sit in the witness chairs, centre, and explain why Nunavut's food prices are so high. (PHOTO BY CHRIS WINDEYER)

Pages and staff await the opening of Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly Feb. 22. MLAs want representatives from the federal government and private sector to sit in the witness chairs, centre, and explain why Nunavut’s food prices are so high. (PHOTO BY CHRIS WINDEYER)

Nunavut MLAs voted unanimously Feb. 25 to join the chorus of complaints over the federal government’s Nutrition North scheme.

The Legislative Assembly approved two motions calling on representatives from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Nutrition North Canada’s advisory board, grocery retailers and airlines to appear before to talk about Nunavut’s sky-high food prices.

“All of us are deeply concerned that all of our constituents have access to affordable food,” Quttiktuq MLA Ron Elliott said while introducing the first of two motions, which were seconded by health minister Tagak Curley.

The first motion calls on INAC officials and members of Nutrition North’s advisory board, which includes former Arviat mayor Elizabeth Copland and Cambridge Bay councillor Wilf Wilcox, to appear before MLAs in March, during the current assembly sitting.

The second motion invites representatives from the North West Co., Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. and other private sector players, including airlines, to appear in the assembly during the spring session this coming June.

Elliott told reporters that’s because MLAs want to hear from retailers after the Nutrition North Canada subsidy program goes into effect Apr. 1.

“By June… the retailers should know whether it’s being successful for them and how the savings are being passed on,” he said.

The federal government and grocery retailers have come under fire for high food prices since photos of grocery prices, taken earlier this month at a Northern store in Arctic Bay, triggered widespread outrage among Nunavummiut who feel like they’re being gouged by retailers.

“People are very confused” about the new program, Arviat MLA Daniel Shewchuk said in the Assembly Feb. 25.

In a flurry of denials and explanations, retailers blamed the delay between the end of the old food mail program last October, and the start of Nutrition North in April.

Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq and INAC minister John Duncan, in turn, blamed retailers, because Nutrition North hasn’t started yet.

Aglukkaq and Duncan both maintain the cost of healthy food will drop once the new program comes into effect.

INAC spokesperson Genevieve Guibert said officials in the department are aware of the invitation and are considering it. She said officials are travelling widely across the North ahead of the Apr. 1 start date.

Guibert also said INAC has distributed public service announcements and posters advertising Nutrition North Canada and will buy paid ads in northern media to help drive the point home.

“The communications plan a little bit closer to Apr. 1 and after will be a little bit more aggressive,” she said.

Michael McMullen, the North West Company’s vice president responsible for Northern and Northmart stores, said his company “absolutely, without hesitation” accepts the assembly’s invitation.

McMullen said consumers should see a drop of five to seven per cent of prices on items covered by Nutrition North Canada.

He added NWC will ship more ineligible items by sealift to control costs, and will investigate whether it makes sense to build more warehousing space to store non-perishable items.

He also said June is a good time to meet with Nunavut MLAs, because by then his company will have a better idea of how Nutrition North is working.

“It’s going to be fun up there in June,” he said. “I think MLAs have got a lot of questions, as does everybody. And I think the best way do it is make it an open format, transparent. Let’s talk.”

In the Legislature, Curley said private sector companies also have to take responsibility for their role in determining food costs.

Private sector airlines and shipping companies pass the cost of shipping onto private sector retailers, who in turn pass the costs onto Nunavummiut, he said.

“It’s about time Nunavummiut get to face the main actors and the food providers,” Curley said.

Curley also took a shot at those who think people in Nunavut live high on the hog on taxpayer-funded subsidies.

“There is not one [private] institution or company in Nunavut that is subsidized by [the] Government of Canada or [the] Nunavut government. These are all private enterprise businesses.”

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