As the weather warms up and the flowers start to bloom, most Canadians are starting to think about planting crops, firing up the barbecue and planning summer vacations. Nothing could be further from our collective minds than the far North, which we almost invariably picture as a beautiful and forbidding snow- and ice-covered world.
In reality, spring has also sprung in northern Canada. North of the Arctic Circle, although residents are still venturing out to gauge the number of weeks before the snow is completely gone, by late June it will be a balmy five-to-ten degrees, with 24-hour daylight.
Despite the change in weather, northerners continue to face the same problems that they experience during the winter months -- including extraordinarily high food prices. According to the most recent federal government data, it costs almost $450 a week for a family of four to eat well in isolated northern communities. This is more than double the cost of food in southern Canada.
Canada's approach to addressing northern food security is disjointed, disorganized and incomplete.
One in Five Northerners Don't Get Enough Food
In the territories, nearly one in five households has trouble getting enough food to eat. In Nunavut, this figure rises to half of all households -- a truly staggering number. This situation is the result of many factors, including the high cost of food and very high rates of poverty, particularly within indigenous communities. The effects of the residential school trauma, decreasing access to traditional foods, and the high cost of hunting add complexity to the problem.
Across the territories and northern provincial regions, there are a number of government initiatives meant to address these issues. While there are a few standout programs -- Manitoba's Northern Healthy Foods Initiative and the James Bay Cree Hunters and Trappers Income Security Program come to mind -- Canada's approach to addressing northern food security is disjointed, disorganized and incomplete.
The Federal Government Can Do More
The leading federal response to the issue -- Nutrition North Canada -- is a shipping subsidy for retailers that, while useful, has not succeeded in significantly decreasing the price of food. While the federal government is planning to expand this program into more communities, this improvement is only a partial solution.
If we are going to truly address food access in the north, we need to put relevant, well-resourced programs in place.
Food Banks Canada has proposed a number of changes to Nutrition North Canada, as well as other policy changes that we believe will increase northerners' access to healthy, nutritious food. These include increased support for hunting and fishing, and amplified attention to building traditional knowledge among indigenous youth.
Low Income is the Key Driver of Northern Hunger
Perhaps most importantly, while food in the north costs more than twice what it does in the south, jobless benefits are uniformly low across Canada. In northern communities without road access, it costs a family of four about $23,000 to eat well for a year. In a region where jobs can be very hard to come by, that same family would receive between $21,000 and $33,000 through social assistance -- leaving very little left over for all other expenses.
If we are going to truly address food access in the north, we need to put relevant, well-resourced programs in place. We also need to address deep and widespread northern poverty, which is why the current push for a regionally-variable basic income is so important. Adequate incomes are at the root of food security, and we will never achieve one without the other.
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