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UN food envoy provokes Ottawa with findings on hunger and poor diet in Canada

OTTAWA - The UN's right-to-food envoy is raising the alarm about hunger and poor diets in Canada, but the federal government says he is wasting his breath.

Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to food, has just wrapped up an official 11-day investigation into food security in Canada — his first foray into a G8 country.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter speaks to reporters during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter speaks to reporters during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

He concluded that Canada is flouting its international human rights obligations by ignoring hunger within its own borders, even as 800,000 Canadian households don't have the wherewithal to be sure they can put proper food on the table.

"What I've seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and aboriginal (and) non-aboriginal peoples," De Schutter said Wednesday.

He said he was particularly concerned by the large portion of people living on social assistance who see their income drained away by housing, and can't afford an adequate diet.

"Here I have to say my concerns are extremely severe and I don't see why I should mince my words," he said.

"...People are simply too poor to eat decently."

He called for a national food strategy that would emphasize local food production, reform food subsidies for the North, ensure a living wage for low-income people and pull together the disparate attempts to deal with hunger across the country.

De Schutter also criticized Ottawa for failing to ensure provinces spend transfer payments on social services.

And he said the federal government should be far stricter in its regulation of sodium, sugar and fat in food.

Ottawa's reaction was blunt.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who held a last-minute meeting with De Schutter, called him "ill-informed" and "patronizing," since he made recommendations about the North without setting foot there.

Instead of targeting Ottawa, De Schutter should be looking at environmentalists who are trying to cut off Inuit access to the seal hunt, polar bears and fish, she added.

"Food security issues is not about access to that. It's about fighting environmentalists that try to put a stop to our way of life, of hunting to provide for our families," she said.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was equally harsh.

"I think this is completely ridiculous," he told reporters just before the envoy presented his report.

"Canada is one of the wealthiest and most democratic countries in the world. We believe that the UN should focus on development in that the UN should focus on development in countries where people are starving. We think it's simply a waste of resources to come to Canada to give political lectures."

De Schutter travelled to cities across Canada, visited some reserves and met aboriginal representatives, but did not get to the North.

He made no apologies for being political in his recommendations and said he hoped to provoke the federal government into holding a serious conversation about how to improve poverty and food security.

De Schutter added that he has asked to go to the United States and a few other developed countries, but so far has not been invited. He said he chose Canada because there is a standing invitation for UN officials.

He said his report will play a role in defining Canada's international reputation and will come up during assessments of Canada's human rights protections.

First Nations have turned frequently to the UN when their pleas for change in public policy have fallen on deaf ears. But Ottawa has paid little heed.

As for what will come of De Schutter's recommendations, the federal government has repeatedly dismissed appeals for national strategies on poverty and housing. The Conservatives argue that those areas are better dealt with by the provinces, since they can take regional variations into account.

Indeed, several provinces have adopted poverty reduction strategies in the past few years.

However, the NDP notes that during the last federal election campaign, the Conservatives promised a national farm and food strategy that would focus on supporting local farmers, opening up new markets and ensuring food safety.

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