Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Northern food costs focus of probe

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Aaron Watson / The Canadian Press
Leesee Papatsie, waving during last year�s demonstration in Iqaluit, applauded the announcement.

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Aaron Watson / The Canadian Press Leesee Papatsie, waving during last year�s demonstration in Iqaluit, applauded the announcement.

CANADA'S auditor general has agreed to examine one of the North's most contentious issues -- the $15 bag of apples, the $20 head of cabbage and the pork shoulder roast that costs nearly $25 a kilogram.

Michael Ferguson will examine the effectiveness of the Harper government's revamped subsidy program to bring down the high cost of food.

"I think it's great," Leesee Papatsie, who helped organize Nunavut-wide food-price protests last summer, said Tuesday from Iqaluit.

"We don't know for sure if the subsidy is being passed on."

Food prices are a long-standing issue in the North.

Ottawa used to subsidize shipping costs in an effort to make food more affordable, but that began to change in 2011 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. The Conservatives switched the subsidy to retailers, who were expected to pass it on by cutting food costs for consumers. The Tories also tightened the list of eligible foods to emphasize fresh, healthy products.

But while the government says food prices are declining, many northerners wonder if the entire subsidy is reflected in consumer prices. Others say the list of foods eligible for the subsidy is too narrow

Papatsie said her grocery bills -- about $600 a week for a family of six -- haven't changed much.

"Some vegetables are definitely cheaper," she said. "Canned stuff is still expensive. Meat is still expensive."

Nunavut MLA Ron Elliott said the numbers don't add up.

Using price quotes from northern airlines, he figured the cost to fly food to a community such as Resolute is about $3.50 a kilogram. The Nutrition North subsidy on milk, eggs and vegetables there is $10.20 per kilogram.

"Anything that you can buy under $7 for one kilogram, you're getting it to the community for free," said Elliott. "They're actually getting paid to sell milk."

Meanwhile, he said, consumers in his community are paying $27 for a 1.1-kilogram pork shoulder roast. "This shows the massive profits the stores are making."

That's why the audit was requested, said Dennis Bevington, one of six New Democrat MPs who joined with the three territorial legislatures to ask Michael Ferguson to look into the issue.

"I think the cost of living is at a crisis point across the North," he said. "We want to know if that program is delivering the performance that it should."

Bevington said the auditor general has also agreed to look at whether the program has enough money.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 A1

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