External review of Nutrition North food subsidy program possible, minister says

A file photo of shoppers buying fresh produce in Akulivik, Nunavik. (Eye on the Arctic/Radio Canada International)

Minister Dan Vandal responds to allegations that subsidy is not always passed entirely to northerners

Canada’s northern affairs minister says his department may order an external audit of the Nutrition North food subsidy program, “if necessary.”

Minister Dan Vandal was responding to allegations, recently reported by CBC’s The Fifth Estate, that some northern retailers are not passing all of the subsidies on to customers, as intended under the program.

Vandal vowed to fix the problem, “if the allegations are true.”

“There’s already been several external reviews [of Nutrition North] over the last few years that have been quite favourable. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement,” Vandal told Radio-Canada on Tuesday.

“If things have changed, if circumstances have changed since then, then we will go for another external review if we feel we have to.”

Vandal’s comments come just weeks after his department said it would not move forward with an external evaluation of the Nutrition North program, despite a recommendation made by the standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs.

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, the federal department that manages the food subsidy program, tabled a response at the end of January to five recommendations the committee made to improve food security in remote and northern communities.

That response came more than two and a half years after the committee’s recommendations were made.

Northern Affairs said it mostly agreed with the recommendations. In its response, the department said it would look at other avenues to evaluate the effectiveness of Nutrition North.

A spokesperson for the department told Radio-Canada in an email written in French, that five Indigenous-led research projects that look at how to improve the program are expected to be complete in 2024.

These research projects aim to “fill critical gaps in isolated communities […] and will inform future policies.”

“Additionally, the department is currently conducting an evaluation of the program, which will further guide program improvements,” wrote Kyle Allen, the communications director for Vandal.

That evaluation should be finished in March 2025, according to the department.

Evaluation needed, former senator says 

Launched in 2011, Nutrition North is a subsidy program that aims to reduce the delivery costs of perishable items and some non-food products to remote communities. Retailers receive the subsidy, which is then supposed to be passed to the client.

“I believe that it can be improved, that there are flaws, but I think that the basic format of the program, is way more efficient and effective than the Food Mail program it replaced,” said former Nunavut senator Dennis Patterson.

Dennis Patterson, Nunavut’s former senator, says ‘there are flaws’ with the Nutrition North program that could be fixed. (Dennis Patterson)

Patterson believes that the program should be reevaluated.

“Apparent price gouging that shows up on social media regularly led me to believe that in fact the subsidy is not being fully passed on to consumers,” he said.

Patterson also says those running the program aren’t necessarily in touch with the needs of communities.

“The Nutrition North program is basically a colonial model where the bureaucrats that administer the program are in Ottawa, travel rarely to the North, don’t know what’s going on on the ground,” he said.

“An external review that would examine the data and analyze it and make recommendations for change is certainly a good idea.”

No one to listen 

Tara Tootoo Fotheringham’s business, Arctic Buying Kivalliq, has been part of Nutrition North since its creation. Arctic Buying Inc. is based in Winnipeg and sells perishable and non-perishable items to its clients in Nunavut and northern Manitoba by road, by air and by sea.

Like Patterson, Fotheringham believes the program’s administrators aren’t aware of communities’ needs.

“It’s like we’re the employee and they’re the boss and when we’re telling them we think these things would matter and it would make a bigger change in the overall way of how it works, our letters go unanswered,” she said.

Tara Tootoo Fotheringham is the executive director of Arctic Buying Kivalliq. (Submitted by Tara Tootoo Fotheringham)

Fotheringham sent a letter to the Nutrition North advisory board in April 2023, asking for changes to the program. She did not receive a response.

“It’s really frustrating because we’re the frontline people that are hearing people who are not sure how they’re going to have extra food in their cupboards or put that food on their table,” she said.

More oversight needed

Fotheringham said the subsidy only covers five categories of products sent by barge, the cheapest form of transportation, but only non-perishable products can be sent this way.

Food is otherwise sent by plane, which raises the price.

“Nutrition North is paying a lot more money to ship the same product through air. Whereas if they just made an adjustment within their program, they could ship the stuff by sea and therefore they’re saving money to the entire budget,” she said.

She also said the subsidy for sending food by plane should be the same across the North, “so that people are paying the same price in all those communities.”

Another fault of the program, she says, is that there isn’t enough oversight on how the subsidy is allocated by retailers.

“There is no way to know if the consumers themselves are in fact getting the full subsidy,” she said.

Fotheringham also says an external evaluation is needed, but she’s not sure that will fix the problem.

“Unless you change the corporate nature of that department, nothing is going to change. We’re all going to be talking about the same matter two years from now, and five years from now.”

Reporting by Julie Plourde/Radio-Canada, translated by Emma Tranter

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Northerners welcome changes to Canada’s Nutrition North program, but wish for more, CBC News

Finland: One in 10 Finnish families with young children dealing with food insecurity: survey, Yle News

United States: New farm bill program aims to fight food insecurity in Alaska, Alaska Public Media

CBC News

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