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Aboriginal affairs critic gets taste of food insecurity
Aboriginal affairs critic says UN special rapporteur was right, government was wrong

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Friday, June 8, 2012

Enjoying a dinner prepared by six Inuksuk High School students, NDP MP Jean Crowder and her hosts experienced a harsh reality. Sticking to a grocery budget of $40 per group (or family) of four for a day, they found they spent their whole day's budget on one meal, and that was on nutritious food.

NNSL photo/graphic

Jean Crowder, the NDP MP for the British Columbia riding of Nanaimo-Cowichan, is also the official opposition's aboriginal affairs critic. She visited Iqaluit and Pangnirtung to get a first-hand sense of the food security issues Nunavummiut face. - Casey Lessard/NNSL photo

"The two young men were still hungry at the end of the meal, we didn't have any money for things like soya sauce or butter," Crowder said, noting they did splurge on ice cream for dessert. "They could all go home and fill up, but they recognized that people who ate what they ate would go to bed not very full."

Those people would also not have anything left for the day's other two meals.

Crowder is MP for the British Columbia riding of Nanaimo-Cowichan, and the official opposition's aboriginal affairs critic

"The UN rapporteur did have it right," she said of Olivier de Schutter's recent visit to Canada and subsequently critical report about food insecurity. "There are serious problems with access to good quality, affordable, nutritious food. There is this notion in the south that the food needs are met through country food. That's clearly not the case, and people are talking about the erosion of their access to country food. Poverty is just all over this."

The situation is so bad that a groundswell of Nunavummiut is rising up, most in the virtual realm, but some in the physical realm. Iqaluit resident Leesee Papatsie recently started a Facebook group called Feeding My Family, which had 8,310 users as of June 7. She also organized a June 9 protest at Iqaluit's NorthMart.

"I'm hoping to bring Nunavummiut together to say one thing: the cost of food in Nunavut is too high," she said ahead of the protest. "Let's go out stand together as one, and say one simple thing."

It's not that simple, though. Inuit aren't used to protesting, she said.

"There's no Inuktitut word for protest, because it's not something we're taught to do," Papatsie said. The word she's using means "showing what we don't agree with."

"This is not a traditional thing that Inuit do, to protest. But I also know we are going in a different direction with our culture."

Speaking at the June 5 public meeting with Crowder in Iqaluit, Nunavut Food Bank co-chair Jen Hayward said the protests may be targeting the wrong people, or in this case, businesses.

"Some of the biggest supporters of the food bank are getting the worst rap," Hayward said of online discussions about the issue. "We would not exist if it were not for support from NorthMart, Arctic Ventures and the airlines. They have always come and rescued us. We now have an arrangement with Northern so that when their food gets close to its best before date, they give it to us as a donation."

Still, Crowder encouraged people to coalesce around the issue to attract government attention.

"The issues around food security aren't just in Nunavut," she said. "There are a million Canadians he (de Schutter) says are food insecure. That's a lot of people. The problem is those are the people who are the least likely to be able to engage in a campaign because they're too busy trying to feed themselves. The challenge is how do you get them to engage in a conversation?"

Nunavummiut also face challenges to feed themselves, even without affordable food. Finding their own food, on the land, is hard to afford with the cost of equipment, supplies, and fuel, she said.

The NDP's Nunavut candidate in the last election, Jack Hicks, challenged the federal government for its decision to criticize de Schutter's review of Canadian food security. Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq, also federal health minister, had dismissed de Schutter and said the real problems facing indigenous people in the Arctic were European views on animal hunting, including issues such as the European Union's seal ban.

"Leona really put her foot in it by speaking her mind, or Stephen Harper's mind," Hicks said. "She has really communicated how much contempt the most powerful people have in this country for poor people."

Crowder said solutions must come from the communities themselves, or they won't stick.

"People in these communities think they can work toward a solution," she said. "What they need is support in doing that. I understand there is a food coalition group coming together to develop that plan for Nunavut, and it includes government, community partners, NGOs, and that group will probably have the best chance of coming up with concrete solutions. There is going to be a role for the federal government in that once they identify the need."

Papatsie's group has solicited some ideas to help alleviate the problem, she said, including subsidies to help hunters buy equipment and supplies. Lunch programs at schools are also recommended.

"Anything to feed the children and elders and communities is great," she said.

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