Current Problems

Food Insecurity

A mother’s fight against food insecurity spotlights struggle in the North

May 15, 2024

Isabelle Chapadeau breaks down the price of a small grocery trip in Pangnirtung, Nunavut to her TikTok followers. 

APTN News: In the town of Pangnirtung, where the cost of living is well above the national average, Isabelle Chapadeau, a mother of two, is using social media to make her voice heard in the struggle against food insecurity.

Spending more than $500 a week on groceries, Chapadeau’s battle highlights the broader issue plaguing Canada’s northern communities.

“We are citizens of Canada. Also, we live in Pangnirtung because they (Canada) moved us here in communities, so, why can’t we have the bare minimum?” she said.

Chapadeau’s frustration echoes across Nunavut, a region where the disparity in income and access to affordable food is common.

The federal government has a program to make Chapadeau’s life, and the lives of others in northern and remote communities cheaper.

It’s called Nutrition North Canada. Each year the federal government pays retailers millions in subsidies. That money is then supposed to be passed along to consumers.

A research paper published in the fall said only .67 cents on the dollar of the subsidy is being passed along.

The House of Commons committee that examines Indigenous issues called the heads of Calm Air International, Canadian North Inc., Kimik Cooperative, and the North West Company, the retailers that receive the subsidy, to Ottawa to talk about it.

The North West Company (NWC), serves as both the primary place of employment and a major economic partner in isolated northern regions and plays a pivotal role in the Nutrition North Canada (NNC) program, aiming to alleviate the high cost of groceries by offering a consumer subsidy passed through retailers.

According to the federal program, retailers are supposed to pass 100 per cent of the subsidy on to people in 125 eligible communities across the country.

“The cost of maintaining the NNC program and having Northerners benefitting from the subsidy is our obligation and it’s a pleasure for us. We get the money and we transfer it to the customers,” said Jean-Pierre Goulet- GM- Kimik Cooperative LTD.

“Operating costs in the Arctic are disproportionately big compared to an operation in the south. Electricity costs are higher, water, there is no way of having dual energy sources, maintenance costs are extreme, everything has to be brought in by plane.

“For that to happen we need a system that meets the needs and the requirements of the NNC program.”

Dan McConnell, left, and Jean-Pierre Goulet at the committee meeting in May. Photo: Kerry Slack/APTN.

According to Dan McConnell, CEO of the North West Company, NWC is passing the full value of the subsidy to customers and is backed by five audits.

“The NNC subsidy lacks the investment needed to keep in pace with inflation. As a result, its positive impact has eroded,” said McConnell.

A report by the Auditor general backs what McConnell said about infrastructure.

“Overall, we found that Transport Canada was aware of the information documented since 2005 about remote northern airports’ safety— and efficiency-related infrastructure needs, such as the need for improved runway lighting and navigational aids,” the report states.

The report goes on to say, “However, the Department had not taken a leadership role in addressing these needs by leading efforts and working collaboratively with its provincial, territorial, and industry partners to enhance the safety and improve the accessibility and efficiency of remote northern airports.”

McConnell breaks down how the NNC subsidy affects the price of milk.

“A four-litre jug of milk is $4.09 in Oxford House Manitoba, without the subsidy it would be $18.28. In Arctic Bay Nunavut it’s $6.49 instead of $61.”

He insists NWC is doing all it can to pass along savings to the customers.

“I want to emphasize that the full value of the subsidy is passed along to our customers. We take our commitment to our transparency to our customers very seriously,” he said. “The North requires serious attention and investment. “We will absolutely look into the allegations that only .67 cents on the dollar is being passed to customers, we’ve been audited five times, and they have found that we pass 100 per cent along to our customers.

“There are more studies coming up, there’s been another study that’s been tabled that contradicts past studies. When that report reaches my desk, I have no issue with sharing it with you.”

Chapadeau doesn’t shy away from sharing her ordeal with a wider audience. Her 22,000 followers on TikTok see the reality of northern living costs. One of her videos documents a trip to North Mart.

Chapadeau said Nunavummiut seem to have few options.

“My community and all Nunavut are stuck, not knowing how to change things because this is not what we know. We know how to hunt and fish sustainably,” said Chapadeau. “We only rely on two grocery stores and a Quickstop and that’s it. No other solutions and initiatives.  We barely have what we need at the store and when we get food, it can be moldy, old and not good to eat.

“I do believe we deserve concrete solutions other than financial support: donations centres, food centres, green houses during warmer days, more ways to distribute country food, serious Inuit teaching to help the younger generation to keep hunting and fishing etc.”

According to Nunavut Food Security Coalition nearly 70 per cent of Inuit homes in Nunavut are food insecure.

The household food insecurity rate is over eight times higher than the Canadian average. This rate is one of the highest rates for an Indigenous population in a developed country.

While the Conservative MPs on the committee question the guests on repeat about carbon tax pricing and its effect on northern food prices, Shelly De Caria, born and raised in Kuujjuaq, Québec, and CEO of Canadian North Inc., reminds them the North has been expensive for a long time.

“Food prices were too high in northern regions long before the carbon tax came into the picture,” she said.

Citing challenges, inconsistencies and insufficient airport infrastructures, staffing shortages, fuel supply shortage for the added costs to northern consumers. .

“The subsidies are intended to benefit Inuit and the communities we serve yet we have seen mounting concerns in the inadequacies in offsetting the skyrocketing costs of food and food transportation,” she said.

“Something just isn’t right.”

Read more:

NDP passes motion to have CEOs appear before committee on Nutrition North subsidy program

When asked about improvements to infrastructure by MP Sebastien Lemire, from the Bloc Quebequois, Dan Vandal, the minister of Northern Affairs, responded, “We know that the subsidy alone is not enough to support food security in the North. We have also created the Harvesters Support Grant, and the Community Food Programs Fund, which were co-developed with Indigenous and Northern partners to support culturally relevant harvesting and food sharing practices.

“With the Harvesters Support Program, we’ve added $100 million to this program, our thinking is that by working together we can build food infrastructure in the North. Greenhouses are good examples,” said Vandal.

“I visited greenhouses in old hockey rinks in NWT and Iqaluit, where they are able to produce fresh and affordable food. We are developing partnerships and projects with local communities, so they can take ownership of these initiatives.”

Vandal said he recognizes the need for improvements.

“There is room for improvement but these subsidies are making a difference,” he said. “There’s more to do and the program can be improved. I’m committed to ensuring 100 per cent of the subsidy is passed on to consumers.”

Vandal told the committee that an internal review is being done on the NNC program and once the internal review is done it will be passed to external review.

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