Dry pasta is among some products, such as canned foods, coffees and teas, that remain subsidized under the Nutrition North Program, but only for northern communities that do not have marine access between Oct. 3 and March 31. (Submitted by Ron Elliott)

Montreal – Residents of Quebec’s northernmost communities are bracing for a steep increase in their grocery bill as a new federal food subsidy program kicks in on April 1.

Gerard Duhaime, a sociologist and the head of Canada Research Chair on Comparative Aboriginal Condition at University of Laval in Quebec City, said the expected price increase in Nunavik and other Arctic regions of Canada is no April Fool’s joke.

“We’re expecting about 60 per cent increase in consumer prices,” Duhaime said. “And this is considering that prices in Nunavik are already 60 per cent higher than in southern Quebec.”

Read MoreResidents of Nunavik, a self-governing predominantly Inuit region in northern Quebec, are facing a double whammy, Duhaime said, as a provincial program that subsidized prices for certain consumer goods also runs out at the end of March. It’s not clear whether the provincial government will renew funding for the program, Duhaime said.

Removing the middleman

The federal Nutrition North Canada food subsidy program officially replaces the Food Mail Program on April 1, changing how the federal government subsidizes the cost of groceries in remote northern communities, said Leo Doyle, acting director of Nutrition North Canada at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

The new $60-million a year program is designed to promote the consumption of healthy food in the most isolated northern communities of Canada.

“Instead of having Canada Post organize the transportation of food into isolated communities that are fly-in only for most of the year through subcontracted airlines, we will offer subsidies to food suppliers who will themselves organize to bring the food into the communities,” said Doyle.

Doyle said the government introduced the changes because it had received assurances from food retailers that they can bring in food faster and at cheaper prices than under the old postal system, which had been in place for about 50 years.

Duhaime said he believes the changes to the program were driven by the Conservative government’s ideology.

“It was a request from the political class,” Duhaime said. “The basic idea of the Food Mail Program was to correct somehow the failure of the markets to provide food stuffs in the North, so now you’re perverting the program if you want it to be market driven.” 

Doyle said a monitoring system would be set up to make sure that the retailers pass on their savings on to the consumer, Doyle said.

The program will affect about 100,000 residents across Canada’s vast and sparsely populated northern areas.

But many residents of Nunavik have said the new program could result in less choice, more expensive food and less nutrition.

Communities will receive according to need

Each community will be eligible for certain funding depending on how much of eligible food was brought into that community. Federal officials have already changed its list of grocery items that are eligible for a subsidy, phasing out many items that are deemed not to be healthy and perishable, Doyle said.

“The food that we’re subsidizing is fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy products: the healthiest foods that absolutely must be brought into these fly-in communities by air freight,” he said.

However, Duhaime said the list of subsidized foods excludes canned fruits and vegetables.

“In very remote areas you have this big problem that you don’t have ‘fresh food’ so to speak,” Duhaime said. “By the time these products reach small villages, after being transported by big planes and then smaller aircraft, they are no longer fresh. So you have to go with canned or frozen food. And this will no longer be subsidized.”

Doyle said that non-perishable items such as canned fruits and vegetables can be brought in at much cheaper prices by sea during the ice free summer navigation period.

Hunting and fishing is not an option for everyone

Duhaime said increased prices will put more pressure on traditional Inuit practice of food sharing. While the Inuit have traditionally depended on hunting and fishing to supplement their diets with healthy and nutritious food, only people who are well-off to begin with can afford the substantial costs of getting properly outfitted to go out on the land, Duhaime said.

“If you’re poor you don’t have the money to go hunting, that’s it,” Duhaime said.

External links:

Nutrition North Canada

Canada Research Chair on Comparative Aboriginal Condition

Kativik Regional Government