High Food Prices, Hunger and Poverty Up in the North

Written by Luis Fernando Arce, Chief Interviewer

Dismissing the Findings

Image obtained via quinet on Flickr Creative Commons

Image obtained via quinet on Flickr Creative Commons

In the frigid North of this beautiful country, residents are paying ludicrous prices for food and other basic provisions. We’re talking about $20 for a head of cabbage, $40 for 40 diapers, $82 for a case of ginger-ale and $104 for a case of bottled water! What they spend on a few basic needs is equivalent to what people in southern Canada spend in a week.

On May 16, United Nations Special-Rapporteur-on-the-Right-to-Food, Olivier De Schutter, wrapped up his 11-day fact-finding mission through poor, inner-city neighbourhoods in central Canada and other remote aboriginal communities.  His findings sparked commotion in political circles, eliciting indignation and resentment from the Conservative government, to which the opposition parties have responded with harsh criticism. Added to this is an open letter signed by more than 150 organizations and individuals asking the government to apologize for what they consider an attack on the UN.

At a press conference in Ottawa shortly before the end of the mission, De Schutter announced that three million out of a population of 34 million people (or more than 900,000 households) in central Canada are “food-insecure;” one in ten families with children under six years old cannot meet their food needs; and two-thirds of the population suffers from obesity due to junk food being much cheaper than healthy food.

[pullquote]$20 for a head of cabbage, $40 for 40 diapers, $82 for a case of ginger-ale and $104 for a case of bottled water! [/pullquote]He stated that it is “time for Canada to adopt a National Right to Food Strategy,” which would include reforms to current subsidies and ensure living wages.  He went on to criticize the government for not ensuring province transfer payments on social services.

De Schutter also expressed disappointment in not being invited to meet with any cabinet ministers, which he says is traditionally what happens during these types of expeditions.  It “betrays a lack of understanding of what hunger is about,” he told Postmedia News. He also noted that there are severe “blind-spots in the current policies that the government cannot continue to ignore.”

Unfortunately, his findings – which have been echoed by previous parliamentary committees and other independent research – fell upon deaf ears.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq dismissed the apparent gravity of the situation by calling De Schutter “patronizing” and “ill-informed,” alluding to the fact that he had not actually been to northern Canada. She suggested the real threat are environmental and animal rights groups that have curbed aboriginal communities’ feeding patterns by protesting game hunting in general. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney also jumped on the wagon saying that the mission was “ridiculous.”

He added, “It would be our hope that the contributions we make to the United Nations are used to help starving people in developing countries, not to give lectures to wealthy and developed countries like Canada.”

The spokesperson for John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs,  shared similar sentiments when he suggested that, because the world has such dire hunger problems, the UN should make better use of its time rather than going after a country like Canada.

Protesting the Dismissals

The first outcries to this came in the form of the open letter – comprised of a plethora of signatories including politicians and organizations such as former NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, former Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament Flora MacDonald and Amnesty International.

The letter pointed out that De Schutter had spoken with First Nations communities in northern Manitoba to get their side of the story. It also highlighted that James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, had raised similar concerns about the living conditions of Aboriginal People in the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario in 2011. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jon Duncan viewed the letter as a mere “publicity stunt.”

According to a National Post article, Canada’s record for not heeding UN Human Rights Bodies’ recommendations is poor. It cited another event in 2009 when the federal government rejected a key recommendation made by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodical Review, which called for the country to implement a national strategy to reduce poverty. Bruce Porter, UN Director at Social Rights Advocacy Center, suggested that Canada has adopted a “bad attitude…reflected in its unease to see access to food as a human right and its refusal to declare social and economic rights as on par with political and civil rights.”

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