OTTAWA – The federal government is being willfully blind to poverty and hunger in its own backyard, the head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said Wednesday.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak was dismayed by comments made by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney about a report on access to food in Canada by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food.
Olivier Schutter completed his 11-day official visit to Canada by delivering a preliminary report in Ottawa Wednesday morning. Canada is the first developed nation De Schutter has visited.
He said Canada is basking in the glow of its wealthy while nearly two million Canadians are left to wonder where their next meal is coming from.
"I have to say my concerns are extremely severe, and I don't see why I should mince my words," he said.
He said Canada is ignoring its obligations under several UN conventions under which the government has a responsibility to protect the right to food. The country needs a national right to food strategy.
But Aglukkaq said De Schutter was "patronizing" and "ill-informed" and Kenney said he was wasting his time in Canada when there are countries out there with real famines.
"I think this is completely ridiculous," Kenney said. "Canada is one of the wealthiest and most democratic countries in the world," said Kenney. "We believe 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."
Nepinak said those comments were unfortunate.
"He's relying on the presumption that in a place like Canada we don't have the poverty, we don't have hungry kids."
De Schutter said there are 800,000 households that have food insecurity, and that social assistance and minimum wage rates are simply not enough to ensure people have access to food.
The situation is particularly atrocious on northern First Nations where remoteness causes a spike in the prices of food and federal subsidies to keep food costs down aren’t monitored properly.
"I am struck by the desperate situation in which many find themselves," he said of the reserves he visited.
De Schutter spent two days of his Canadian tour in Manitoba last weekend. His visit included meetings with provincial and aboriginal leaders in Winnipeg, and trips to Peguis, Sagkeeng, God's River and Wasagamack First Nations.
Nepinak said Ottawa needs to reconsider the entire Nutrition North program, with a view to what communities really need to be more affordable.
The program was introduced last year to replace the old food mail program. Nutrition North subsidizes the cost of certain foods between five cents a kilogram and $1.60 a kilogram in 14 Manitoba First Nations. The amount depends on the location of the reserve and the type of food.
But the list of eligible foods definitely needs reworking, said Nepinak.
Among the foods which receive a subsidy are macaroni and cheese, garlic bread, boxed pasta dinners, frozen pizza and processed cheese spreads.
Plain water gets no subsidy.
High-sugar cereals get the same subsidy as healthier, whole grain cereal, and fresh vegetables and fruit.
Despite the subsidy to try and make fresh food more affordable, it’s still far more expensive to buy healthy options than processed food, said Nepinak.
"It's cheaper to buy pop and chips," he said.
Mostly that's because pop and chips and other processed foods which can be stored for months on end can be shipped up on winter roads at far less cost than the air shipping required for perishables such as milk, meat and produce.
Nepinak also agreed with De Schutter that the program needs better monitoring and compliance. There is nobody watching to ensure the subsidies applied to food retailers and shippers is passed on to consumers.
Nepinak said he was skeptical last week when one store on a reserve amended their price tags to suddenly reflect what the food would have cost without the subsidy.
He said those price tags were created specifically for De Schutter's visit.