The Conservative government is turning its back on an estimated 800,000 Canadian households that struggle to put nutritious food on the table. Instead, they are attacking those who raise legitimate concerns about food insecurity. Although this "shoot the messenger" approach seems to be the Conservative's standard response to every issue, it does nothing for the two to three million men, women and children across the country who are struggling to meet their nutritional needs.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food recently toured Canada and reported, "very desperate conditions and people who are in extremely dire straits." He raised specific concerns regarding aboriginal peoples including: the high cost of food in the North, the effectiveness of the Nutrition North program, the socio-economic and cultural barriers affecting the food security of those living on reserve, and the jurisdictional buck-passing for First Nations living off reserves.
The callous Conservative response was to deny the problem and to attack the credibility of the Rapporteur. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney lectured, "the UN should focus on development in countries where people are starving."
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq went so far as to call the Rapporteur "ill-informed" and "patronizing" for raising these legitimate issues. Speaking of Canadians in the North, she argued that, "We continue to live off the land, eat the seal meat, eat the polar bear meat and whatnot." She then tried to deflect attention from the Conservative government's inaction on food security by raising the seal hunt. Both the Liberal Party and I support the seal hunt, but the fact remains northerners are still suffering from food insecurity issues. Further, the Nutrition North food subsidy plan has been a failure, has not reduced the cost of food, and did not reflect the advice from northerners in its design.
Canada has a serious food insecurity problem and in northern communities some estimates put it as high as 79 per cent, or eight out of 10 people without sufficient food.
The refusal of the Conservative government to admit food insecurity even as an issue was contradicted by aboriginal leaders across the country.
Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami was crystal clear, "There is food insecurity in the North." She went on to comment specifically on Aglukkaq's denial of the problem, "You know, I haven't talked to her so I am not sure why the position was that because we did work with the regions in the North and we did a report for the Rapporteur and we met with him. So he has first-hand information on the situation as it stands right now in the Arctic."
Manitoba Grand Chief Nepinak said, "I've never seen the minister come to Manitoba to visit the remote communities that I was able to take the rapporteur to. I would trust the observation of the rapporteur ahead of the health minister at this time." Further, the Assembly of First Nations provided a submission to the rapporteur advocating for right to food priorities for First Nations in Canada, including the need to develop and implement a national food policy reflective of First Nation traditions and values.
On May 16, the government of Nunavut also stepped up to address the food insecurity issue announcing its plan to create a food security coalition to ensure people are fed properly. Local initiatives are trying to fill the federal void, but where is the federal Conservative government?
The minister of health needs to admit the serious problems of food security in Canada. She and her Conservative colleagues must put aside the PMO talking points and demonstrate real leadership by working collaboratively with aboriginal communities, provincial and territorial governments, food producers, community groups and experts to develop and implement a comprehensive food policy for Canadians.