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Leaders demand Nutrition North audit
Aboriginal Affairs minister defends program

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, July 1, 2013

Northern leaders have written a letter to the Auditor General of Canada demanding an investigation of the Nutrition North program, and Hanna Catholique, a resident of Lutsel K'e, agrees it needs to be done.

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Dennis Bevington says Northerners need answers concerning Nutrition North.

"Oh for sure," she said. "I think it's a disaster."

Lutsel K'e receives the lowest subsidy available, five cents per kilogram. Catholique said she knows families in Lutsel K'e and throughout the North often have a tough time affording healthy food. Nutrition North replaced the Food Mail program in 2012 after an 18-month transition process that began in April 2011.

"People are struggling with high food costs in the communities and we're all concerned about healthy nutrition, especially for the children," she said. "We would like to see a program that works."

Catholique said while she knows food has to be shipped to communities and will therefore cost more, it is often the youngest members of communities who suffer.

"Some of these items are heavy, so I understand why they're expensive here, but that means kids are not getting enough milk," she said. "It's very expensive here."

Milk in Lutsel K'e costs approximately $10 for two litres, Catholique said.

"If you have kids, they can easily go through a jug of milk a day, but you can't afford that," she said.

Catholique said transparency is also an issue. She said receipts tell customers the subsidy rate for their community, but it doesn't break down how the subsidy was applied to the items.

"We don't even know if the subsidy is being applied or where it goes," she said.

Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington said an audit is warranted. Territorial governments in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut have all voted in favour of an audit.

"The mere fact that three legislative assemblies have asked unanimously for the auditor general to do this through motions I think is very significant," Bevington told News/North. "There has been widespread discontent with the program since it's been instituted."

Both Bevington and Romeo Saganash, MP for Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, brought up the issue during question period in the House of Commons on June 13.

Bevington asked Leona Aglukkaq, Nunavut MP and federal health minister, if she would listen to the concerns of Northerners.

"The Conservative's Nutrition North program has done nothing but increase the cost of groceries across Northern Canada," Bevington said in the House. "Will the Minister of Health heed the demands of the territorial governments and call in the auditor general to investigate this boondoggle?"

Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, responded to the question instead, saying the Nutrition North program is working as it was intended.

"Northerners have asked for greater access to healthy foods at a lower cost and we've responded to their requests and the results are clear - the program is working," Valcourt said. "As a result of the Nutrition North program, they now have access to high-quality, nutritious foods at a lower cost."

Saganash called the cost of food in the North "scandalous" and demanded that Aglukkaq take action. Bevington said he agreed. An audit will determine whether the program is being delivered effectively, he said.

"What I think the auditor general has to look at is, is this program delivering? Is it an effective use of taxpayers' money to get badly needed food into the hands of Northern communities right across the country?" Bevington told News/North.

Bevington said because Nutrition North now sees subsidies flow directly to retailers and there are so many complaints from residents, an audit is warranted.

"Previously, we had a program that subsidized the cost of freight, now we have a program that basically subsidizes the retail food outlets," he said.

Nutrition North has an annual budget of $54 million, an amount that should also be looked into, he added.

"Is the money adequate for the Nutrition North program? Is it working? Is it delivering what it should deliver? We need answers on that side," Bevington said.

The cost of living in Northern communities is also on the rise, Bevington said. Reducing the cost of food would help ease the financial burdens many Northern families face.

"The inflation rate in the NWT is almost double the national average, yet we don't see that our wages are going up by those same amounts. Wage increases are usually tied to southern inflation rates, not the inflation rates affecting the North, so we're falling behind," he said. "There are things that could be done by the federal government to alleviate that. Nutrition North is one of them."

Bevington said his office is currently working on a cost-of-living survey for the North, which should be released in the fall.

"We'll be looking at all costs and trying to put them into perspective," he said.

"The cost of living is escalating in all our Northern isolated communities. It's a subject of real concern to me."

In the meantime, he said he and other leaders will wait for a response from Auditor General Michael Ferguson about a possible audit.

"The auditor general will have to come to his own conclusion about that, whether he deems it worthwhile," Bevington said. "There are strong grounds with the three

legislative assemblies supporting it. We'll keep trying to build that support for the system."

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