Over the past 21 days, opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline has taken a critical turn. For 21 days, Ottawa has been unable to ensure peace, order and good government. For 21 days, the federal government has failed to meet its fundamental obligation.
There is an urgent need to end to this crisis, but also to understand it. We need to see what is at the root of this crisis, to know the source from which it comes. We need to know why the federal government has waited so long to take responsibility and why it still refuses to do so fully. We also need to look at what is being done to resolve the crisis. Since the government is accountable to Parliament, it must be accountable for its actions on this issue.
The has repeatedly stated in the public arena that negotiations were under way with the hereditary chiefs. What is the status of these negotiations?
I understand that negotiations should not be held in public. However, parliamentarians should be minimally informed of what is going on. I am therefore prepared to hear some testimony behind closed doors, so as not to compromise these negotiations. However, it would be highly desirable to reassure parliamentarians regarding the status of the negotiations. It is in the public interest for parliamentarians to be informed of the situation.
It is important that the committee address this issue as soon as possible to make recommendations to the government. I am convinced that the public interest would be greatly served by independent advice on this crisis, such as that provided by this committee.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the Bloc Québécois has made many proposals. First of all, we called for a crisis unit to be set up with Ottawa and the provinces involved. Then, we demanded that, in exchange for an end to the railway blockades, the federal government appoint an independent mediator whose mandate would be to initiate a discussion with the Wet'suwet'en on territorial issues.
In addition, we requested an emergency debate so that the House could debate solutions to be adopted. Through our leader, in a speech to the House, we also proposed that the Coastal GasLink project be temporarily suspended in exchange for lifting the barricades.
For all of these reasons, I believe the committee should support my motion.
Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today on the important subject of food security in the North as you begin your study.
I would begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people.
I am joined today by Wayne Walsh, Director General of the Northern Strategic Policy Branch within Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and my colleagues from the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Indigenous Services Canada, Dr. Tom Wong, Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, and Constantine Tikhonov, Acting Director of the Environmental Public Health Division.
I would like to point out that our departments are but two of a number of federal departments working on this important issue.
Food security, or insecurity, in the north is an important issue. That is why we're working directly with indigenous organizations and northern partners to develop additional made-in-the-north solutions. Food security is a complex, multi-jurisdictional issue. It exists in every jurisdiction in Canada, with isolation being one in a series of key drivers. Many isolated communities lacking year-round road access rely on goods flown in and have limited access to goods and services to improve their access to food. The general conditions of isolation aggravate food insecurity, as a lack of transportation, infrastructure, remoteness, reliance on diesel generators, among a host of other factors, serve to increase both the cost of business and the cost of living.
Income, education and access to social services also drive levels of food insecurity. Some communities in Canada have as high as 60% social assistance rates, which limits household expenditures. About 70% of households in Canada on social assistance are food insecure. There's a direct relationship between income and food security.
To improve access in the north, the government began subsidizing the cost of transporting goods, including food, to northern communities in the 1960s. Over time, the focus narrowed from subsidizing the cost of goods to just perishable, nutritious food through the nutrition north Canada program.
Nutrition North Canada is a retail-based subsidy helping to improve access to nutritious food in 116 isolated communities in Canada. Implemented in 2011, the program replaced the former Food Mail program, driven by making nutritious, perishable food more affordable than the goal of it would otherwise be, increasing access to non-perishable food and other essential items, and promoting healthy eating and a nutritious diet in isolated northern communities.
The program provides registered retailers and suppliers with a subsidy to alleviate the high cost of stocking and supplying eligible items in isolated communities. In 2011, the implementation of Nutrition North Canada included the addition of Health Canada and Public Health Agency of Canada retailer education initiatives which encouraged nutritious eating, a key component of a healthy lifestyle.
Since the program was established in 2011, there has been a steady increase in the nutrition north subsidized foods shipped to communities. In 2018-19, over 30 million kilograms of nutritious food was shipped and sold at subsidized rates. That represents about a 50% increase between 2011 and 2019.
Collaboration with partners has been a significant part of enhancing the program since 2011. Through the nutrition north Canada advisory board, information and advice is provided to the Minister of Northern Affairs to help guide the direction and activities of the program and to ensure that northern residents receive the full benefits of the subsidy program. Members are appointed by the Minister of Northern Affairs through an open, transparent and merit-based selection process.
Nutrition north also relies on the expertise and experience provided by its indigenous working group to drive ongoing updates and improvements to the program so that it better serves eligible communities. We launched this in May 2017. The indigenous working group comprises 11 members representing one or more eligible communities, providing northerners living in these communities with a direct voice into the program.
Many eligible communities under the nutrition north program are located in the four Inuit Nunangat regions of Canada. In order to recognize the distinct realities faced by Inuit, the Inuit-Crown food security working group was created in 2019 to promote further collaboration among government departments and Inuit organizations. The working group supports the Inuit-Crown partnership committee by promoting a whole-of-government approach towards improving food security in Inuit Nunangat.
Since implementation, the Nutrition North Canada program has undergone a number of audits and evaluations, with increased scrutiny over transparency and accountability, and ensuring the program's effectiveness in improving access to nutritious food and making it more affordable.
Both the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and the Office of the Auditor General made recommendations on program changes from 2011 to 2014, including that all isolated communities be given full access to the program, including those south of 60.
In 2016, a massive project was carried out across Canada to gather input from Northerners on how to improve the program. Key recommendations from this process included increased subsidies and broadening the existing eligible food list, support for hunting and harvesting to increase access to country and traditional foods, and support for local food production.
Working with northerners, significant enhancements to the program have been made to reflect recommendations since 2016. The program announced a fully revised food subsidy list, which includes focus on northern staples and family-friendly items such as milk, frozen fruit, frozen vegetables, infant formula and infant food, all with the goal of seeking to lower the cost of nutritious food.
Additional enhancements to the program were announced in 2019. A new surface transportation subsidy was put in place for certain eligible non-perishable items transported by sealift, ice road, or barge, as well as the addition of feminine hygiene products to the eligibility list.
Among the enhancements is the new harvesters support grant, which really supports local food-sharing by reducing the cost of hunting and harvesting for eligible isolated communities in Canada.
The harvesters support grant is based on a partnership approach between indigenous recipient organizations and the department. It has been designed to be indigenous-led, with a recognition that harvesting needs and practices should be driven by communities themselves.
The establishment of the harvesters support grant serves as an important milestone in response to recommendations from northerners, and it is an important step forward in addressing food security in the north beyond subsidizing store-bought market food.
Together and in collaboration with our partners, some good progress has been made, but clearly, more needs to be done.
While the program recognizes access to market food as an important part of helping to alleviate food insecurity in the north, a true response to food insecurity requires solutions beyond nutrition north.
Nutrition North Canada was established to improve the affordability and accessibility of nutritious foods, and while it does offer measurable improvements, it was not designed to address the full range of complex issues leading to food insecurity.
Food insecurity levels in the North...
Food insecurity levels in the North are challenging. More needs to be done to improve the broader well-being of isolated northern communities, and engagement with the working groups and the Advisory Board will help find new solutions.
Other government initiatives have been implemented to help address this issue, including the Canada Northern Economic Development Agency, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Local Food Infrastructure Fund.
However, these programs alone will not solve food security in the North. It will require a multisystem approach.
We are engaging and listening to northern and indigenous residents to understand what they need to help their families, and we're working with provincial, territorial, industry, harvesters and others to develop new sets of shared northern-based solutions beyond nutrition north.
As such, improving food security in the north will require collaboration and coordination from multiple government jurisdictions and stakeholders, and the department is pleased to be broadening this network in support of strong partnerships and collaborative solutions. There is no shortage of resilience and innovative ideas in northern communities. Our job is to listen, work with northerners, and support northern-led solutions.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
As we've heard, gentlemen, food and security and poor nutrition do disproportionately affect northern and indigenous individuals, households and communities. The main tool of government so far with respect to nutrition and food security in the north is this nutrition north Canada program.
As my Conservative colleague, Mr. Vidal, mentioned, there are interesting programs that people are creating that would help nutrition in the north.
I was pleased to be part of cutting the ribbon back in 2011 in Bible Hill, Nova Scotia at a place called Perennia. My government at the time—I was in the Nova Scotia legislature—built the building, established it and invested in new techniques for helping with food insecurity across the country.
One of the companies that was started there was called TruLeaf, founded by Gregg Curwin, who is still located in Nova Scotia. What he created sounded so exciting, we thought, for the north. It's a system that offers an opportunity to grow a sustainable year-round supply of leafy plants to replace or enhance current sources. They're multi-level farms that can be built anywhere, and they offer the key advantage of growing closer to the market, which maximizes freshness while reducing transportation costs and spoilage. The goal is to enhance the local food supply with a year-round supply of agriculture and reduce reliance on imported produce.
They were basically great big huge containment vehicles that had multi-layered trays of greens growing. They can be rolled out for as much produce as you need. At the time we thought this would be very handy somewhere in the north or even in sub-Saharan deserts around the world.
Has anything like that come to your attention? Is this kind of project something that is actually happening in the north right now?
Thank you for your question, Ms. Bérubé.
It is a key issue. We want to make sure that the subsidy goes to the people it is intended for, the people in the North. So we have put in place a series of transparency measures.
First, suppliers must have agreements with us to give us access to their books. In particular, they must write on their cash register receipts the savings realized by the individual thanks to the subsidy. These measures are designed to allow people to see the savings they are making.
In addition, we have introduced verification measures. We do internal audits of companies, based on risk and on a rotational basis, to ensure that the subsidy has actually been passed on to people on the ground.
In addition, we hire an accounting firm to verify receipts. Before we reimburse the suppliers, they send us their invoices each month, and they are subject to an accounting audit.
All of these measures have been put in place to ensure that the subsidy reaches the people in the North and to guarantee transparency. In fact, all of these measures are also presented in the form of a report on our website.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Thank you, gentlemen, for all showing up today and presenting your information to us.
I had the privilege last weekend of being in northern Ontario, in Treaty No. 3 territory, and meeting with some folks out there. In a follow-up to that, this week I got a letter from one of the chiefs of the first nations out there. He talks about the nutrition north program. In general, it's just not meeting the needs in their area. He said it's not measuring up. I'm going to try to summarize quickly.
As an alternative solution, he's requesting:
...consideration to defer a portion of the allocated NNC budget to projects that empower us to grow our fresh produce locally. We firmly believe that we can create partnerships with organizations that have developed successful technologies utilizing controlled environment agriculture units.
He goes on to define that.
Finally he closes with the following:
In closing, the opportunity to harness these technologies will create greater self-sustainability for our communities and less reliance on government intervention programming. The year-round endeavour will feed our people and create employment and economic stimuli.
In your response to my colleague Mr. Zimmer before, you talked about the CanNor program and it providing some funding to, if I grasped it rightly, this kind of endeavour. We quickly looked on their website and saw that money has been invested in the Northwest Territories to this point, if I'm not mistaken.
Is there opportunity in some of the northern provinces for that type of innovative solution to the food security challenges?
I'll start by thanking all of you for being with us here today to share your insights with us. I know I speak for my colleagues when I say that your answers include valuable perspective, certainly more than worthy of our collective dedicated attention.
My question relates to the diversity and the complexity of some of these challenges and the commensurate diversity of solutions in the north. I've had the opportunity to travel only a little to Inuit Nunangat, but I do know the differences in the challenges between Nunavik, Nunavut, Inuvialuit and Nunatsiavut. They are as different as they are far apart, and that's just in Inuit Nunangat. We're also talking about communities that aren't in those four regions.
I've heard some recommendations that could potentially serve to benefit one community here or there, such as Amazon for Iqaluit, the only community that has that ability to order things online. I do recall that article, though. An Amazon Prime account costs $80 a year and it's only available for that one community, and there are all sorts of other challenges. Certainly, it looks like a model that could be expanded upon or maybe subsidized further.
Pointing to the individual solutions, such as a greenhouse in a community with an adequate growing season, or non-reliance on diesel energy, or even soil in which to grow food, they seem a bit, for lack of a better term, “piecemeal” when we're talking about thousands of people in hundreds of communities.
My question focuses a little more on programs that could help enhance the traditional knowledge base with respect to hunting and gathering and the country foods. I was really heartened to see that there's a harvesters support grant. The people I've talked to do elaborate on some of the lost traditional knowledge base. People often say, “Those people in the north, they've lived there for thousands of years; how did they feed themselves then?”, irrespective of the fact that generations of colonialism have totally destroyed that knowledge base. It's not discussed enough that the killing of all the dogs in our generation had a devastating impact on the hunting knowledge base of the north.
If you could elaborate a little, I would like to know how we can help restore some of that knowledge base. I've witnessed elders and children collaborating and talking about hunting, encouraging that knowledge base being incorporated into local curricula, as my colleague Jaime has discussed. When communities can control their curriculum, they often have higher success rates.
As a side note, I'm just going to ask one question and I'll allow you to take the floor after. I have a lot on my mind.
In Halton, which is a community that doesn't suffer from any type of food security commensurate with that in the north, there are kids who go to school hungry. Dr. Wong, you identified the difficulty that a child has when going to school hungry. My colleague Jaime asked about food programs that directly fund, subsidize or support kids in school so that every child or person who goes to school can receive a healthy breakfast and lunch. It's helped kids in Halton, who have a very different relationship with food and food insecurity.
I also know that partners such as the guardians, the Rangers and other programs that bring elders and youth together to restore some of that knowledge base that has been lost through colonialism have helped. It's reconciliation and it's an opportunity to regain some of that lost knowledge base.
I know that's a long, meandering question, but could you speak to the value of a school food program, an enhanced harvesters support grant to restore some of the knowledge base, and the diversity of the problems and the commensurate diversity of potential solutions all across the north, given that we can't use a one-size-fits-all approach or try to fit a round peg into a square hole?
My riding is Thunder Bay—Rainy River, which doesn't have fly-in communities per se, but within Thunder Bay there are something like 10,000 to 30,000 people from northern fly-in communities, so what we're talking about directly affects a lot of constituents in my riding.
To illustrate the extent of the problem, I recently talked to the food bank in Thunder Bay. The food bank is sending tonnes of donated food up to northern fly-in communities. The chiefs pay for the flights, but that illustrates the difficulty in getting food on northern reserves.
I think one of the big problems with nutrition north, from what I can see, is that the subsidy is so trivial that one questions the value of doing it at all. Nutrition north showed some slides. They had taken pictures of I don't know which fly-in community, something like Attawapiskat, and they showed the price with the subsidy and the price without the subsidy.
A little container of strawberries was something like $10.20 with the subsidy and $10.80 without the subsidy. It's a trivial amount of savings. I can't see anybody saying, “Oh well, I get 60 cents off that basket of strawberries. I think I'll buy that.” It's still $10.20. It's still basically unaffordable.
I'm sure that a lot of money is going into nutrition north, but if it basically means a trivial discount that means nothing to the consumer, is it of any value at all?
Thank you for your question.
We constantly monitor the rate of food insecurity. Improvements that wer made recently, in 2019, may not yet be fully reflected on the ground. For example, I mentioned the new harvesters support grant. Funding for this grant will be allocated imminently, in March of this year. The measures have not necessarily had time to take full effect on the ground.
Overall, statistics indicate that food insecurity has been reduced since the program was implemented in 2011. There is always more to be done, and that is why we have round tables with our partners to hear their concerns and find solutions to better meet needs. It is on the basis of these conversations that we make adjustments to the programs. We also adjust product funding rates and the list of eligible products. I will give you an example.
During our consultations, we realized that, as part of the subsidy aimed at nutritious food and having maximum impact in that area, there was a list of foods to make bannock. We adjusted our list to make sure that we included the products to make bannock. There are things that we can subsidize to get them out there, based on the needs expressed to us.
It is through this dialogue that we can get there and make progress.