November 30, 2022

Political candidates must tackle the high cost of food in the North

This column is an opinion of Zoe Elverum, who has lived in Nunavut all her life. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.

Canada’s Arctic: Known to most for its polar bears, cold temperatures and, quite possibly, the high cost of living. Food insecurity and high food prices have been an epidemic in the North for years. Numerous photos and news articles have highlighted the extent of high priced foods over time.

Thirty-five dollars for a liter of cranberry juice; $40 for toilet paper; $100 for a turkey. Everything is true. And despite the media attention, the problem remains.

Each territory has only one MP represented in Parliament. By comparison, the city of Toronto alone has 25 members of Parliament. This makes northern voices hard to hear. That’s why I believe we need all of our federal political candidates—from across Canada—to tackle the high cost of food in the North.

I have lived all my life in a remote community in Nunavut. As a consumer and former employee of one of the stores in my community, I have seen the effect of high food prices on myself, my customers and the community.

High prices for food and basic necessities persist in remote Nunavut communities. (Submitted by Zoe Elverum)

As a cashier, I’ve seen what happens when a mother can’t buy food for her kids, and I’ve had to put food orders on hold at the checkout because people didn’t have enough to buy the goods. As a member of the community, I have friends who do not eat the required three meals a day. I have a friend who is the sole breadwinner in a household of 10.

Although most prices have come down somewhat over the years thanks to the federally funded Nutrition North subsidy program, northerners still spend about three times as much on food as southerners.

This summer, corporate executives from grocery chains came to visit our communities — a rare sight. Why? There was a film crew filming a documentary about life in the North in their stores. Never has my community had so much fresh fruit in the history of, well, EVER! Funnily enough, they held a “Produce Sidewalk Sale” that lasted from the day the film crew arrived until the day after they left.

We don’t often attract attention in the North, and when we do, it’s fleeting.

“We need all of our federal political candidates — from across Canada — to address the high cost of food in the North,” Elverum writes. (Submitted by Zoe Elverum)

There are approximately 40,000 people in the territory of Nunavut. The average unemployment rate in Nunavut is around 12%. In 2017-2018, Statistics Canada reported that 43% of children in Nunavut lived in food insecure households, with a total of 49% of the population being food insecure. Combine these statistics and you have a humanitarian crisis.

Who is most affected?

Although it can be debated, Nunavummiut with disabilities bear the brunt of the high costs. About 16 percent. 100% of Nunavut residents, myself included, live with a disability. We know that people with disabilities already have a higher cost of living in Canada because of expenses related to their disability, such as medical care and specialized equipment.

So what is the solution ?

First, we need to speak out against companies and airlines that take advantage of the high prices consumers pay by sharing photos on social media, writing to MPs or contacting companies directly.

But a big part of the solution lies in good federal policy. What are our federal political candidates proposing to solve the food crisis in the North? We haven’t heard much about it this election so far.

The federal government must improve funding for programs and initiatives that equalize the cost of living in the North. Additional income, especially for people with disabilities, would help northerners cover living expenses and ensure food security.

Yet, despite rampant food insecurity, the North is a beautiful place to live, and the people here are the kindest and most welcoming. Although the prices may be high, people do their best to help those in need and work hard to support and give to those around them.

I just hope the rest of Canada will learn from the people here and help defend equal food prices in the North.