Recent studies by the Conference Board of Canada brought to light the horrible food situation in Nunavut. In 2016, they released their Food Report Cards that looked at industry prosperity, diets, food safety and household food security in each province and territory. This revealed a food insecurity rate of 51 per cent in Nunavut, which means 1 in 2 people cannot get enough to eat. Balanced healthy meals are out of the question and smaller meal sizes are necessary to make food last. This crisis that silently lingers is greatly affecting the indigenous population – which makes up 95 percent of the population of Nunavut.
The consequences of food insecurity are wide-ranging. Adults living in food-insecure households report poorer physical health and are more vulnerable to a wide range of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, and back problems. There is a particularly strong relationship between food insecurity and poor mental health. The risk of experiencing depression, anxiety disorder, mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts increases with the severity of food insecurity.
Food insecurity also leaves an indelible mark on children’s wellbeing. Not having enough to eat at an early age is associated with childhood mental health problems, such as hyperactivity and inattention. Childhood hunger increases the risk of developing asthma, depression, and suicidal ideation in adolescence and early adulthood.
But why is this happening? Canada does after all, produce more food than it needs. According to the government’s own statistics, Canada produces around 1.5 percent of the world’s food while only consuming about 0.6 per cent. So why is there a section of the population that can’t get enough to eat?
Food prices in Nunavut are 140 per cent higher than the rest of the country. This situation has been brought to light in mainstream news stories over the past few years with pictures showing astronomical prices for basic food items. $26 dollars for two litres of orange juice. $10 for four litres of milk. $13 for 2.5 kg of flour. Just listing a few of the prices is enough to show how bad it is. For example just two small bags of groceries in Gjoa Haven will cost over $100 that will go to feed only one person for less than a week.
This has forced people to scrounge for food in dumpsters and ration their meager food supplies by going as far as having to reuse tea bags multiple times. Food banks and soup kitchens in the region are overrun and are running dry as the majority of the population is forced to rely on them due to lack of funds.
Not surprisingly, the two main grocery stores that operate in Nunavut are making massive profits. These grocery stores, NorthMart and Northern store are both owned by The North West Company which owns a majority of the grocery stores in Nunavut. This company has seen its profits increasing over the years and the annual income of the North West Company CEO is over $3 million. This is at the same time when they have been raising prices on basic food items. The company has been raking in huge profits off the backs of indigenous people in Nunavut.
Capitalism undermines traditional way of life
The indigenous population of what is now known as the Canadian territory of Nunavut is made up of mostly Inuit peoples. For thousands of years before colonization, they lived in hunter gatherer societies, living off the land and subsisting mainly from hunting and fishing. The implementation of capitalist economic relations and the vicious colonial policies implemented by the British and Canadian governments tore asunder this way of life.
These policies saw people relocated 2,000 kilometers into permanent settlements, sled dogs killed by the RCMP, and children abducted and forced into residential schools, disrupting intergenerational knowledge of hunting and living off the land. While being farther away from the main economic centres allowed the indigenous peoples of Nunavut to hold on to their traditional way of life longer than many other indigenous peoples, government policies in the 1950s eventually forced them out of their semi-nomadic way of life and they became reliant of food produced by big corporations and transported in from outside.
A defining feature of the establishment of Canadian capitalism was and continues to be the exploitation and oppression of indigenous peoples. Not coincidentally, the precursor to the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, played a key role in this. They made a fortune off of swindling indigenous peoples, giving them next to nothing for large quantities of beaver pelts. The Hudson’s Bay Company made approximately 20 million dollars off of the fur trade, which was key to the establishment of the Canadian bourgeoisie.
The community fights back
Workers in Nunavut are keenly aware of this huge contradiction. According to Isreal Mablick who works as a security guard, “They really are gouging. The annual income of North West Company’s CEO is over 3 million. My annual income for 2014 is $36,000 and I have five kids and a wife, and we have survived. The CEO lives in southern Canada where prices are cheap. I am sure he doesn’t need all that money.”
In January 2015 a Facebook group was started called Feeding My Family to raise awareness about the high cost of food items in the north. The 22,000 members of this group share photos from grocery stores showing the exorbitant food prices.
There have also been some protests against this horrible situation. Iqualuit resident, Leesee Papatsie describes how this was in response to stores selling rotten food at high prices and how they used Facebook to coordinate, “Community members gathered outside the store and did their first protest to come together as one, to protest the high cost of food. Then there was another protest. I know in the North, due to isolation and the extremely high cost of travel between communities, northerners use Facebook to connect to their relatives and friends. We created a Facebook group to ask community members to stand together.”
Protestors have called for a boycott of North West company stores, but the only problem is that, as Iqualuit resident, Rhoda Hiqiniq said, “We agree that it’s a good idea… But when you’re out of groceries, you have to go to the Northern to feed your family.” Residents are left with little recourse in the face of private monopoly.
No solution under capitalism
The government first attempted to address this long standing problem in the 1960s with the Northern Air Stage Program to subsidize the high cost of shipping to the north. The failure of this program led to the creation of a similar program in 2011 called the Nutrition North program. Nutrition North offers $60 million in government subsidies to retailers in an attempt offset the added costs of shipping food by plane to remote areas.
Ron Elliott, who was a representative for the riding of Quttiktuq in Nunavut’s legislature, described the problem with this program,
“What you’re doing is you’re putting the subsidy in the hands of the businesses.
“If you’re in business to make a profit, are you going to be that willing to have good will? My problem is, you can’t really tell a business what profit they should have, right? So if the market can bear something, usually that’s what people charge.”
So what is happening is that the capitalists are simply pocketing the subsidy and food prices remain high. This should come as no surprise. This is perfectly logical under capitalism as we cannot control what we do not own. As long as food distribution is in the hands of the capitalists, no amount of government corporate subsidy programs can improve the situation as the bosses are only interested in one thing: profit.
Another example of why the northern food crisis cannot be resolved under capitalism is the innate lack of transparency and accountability in the system. According to Cathy Towtongie, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik, “The auditor general agreed with us that there is no transparency and no accountability.” But how can we expect transparency when private ownership is the basis of the system – companies are not obligated and have no interest in making their books public. They are not accountable to anyone but their shareholders who demand, above all, increased company profits. If this is made from selling over-priced rotten food to indigenous people in the north, this is how they will do it.
Liberals cry crocodile tears about the plight of indigenous peoples but as they defend the capitalist system, their “solutions” will always fall short of solving the problem. Canada is a rich nation with bountiful resources, an immense amount of wealth and a food surplus. But the chaotic nature of the market means that in spite of there being more than enough food to go around, there is starvation and hunger.
The lack of planning in capitalism means that we are left hopeless in the face of this situation. Only in a socialist society would we be able to implement a democratic plan of production and distribution based on need to ensure that every single family gets more than enough to eat. Instead of ejecting indigenous peoples from their lands to clear the way for capitalist expansion, land and resource rights would be granted in order to democratically run food production and distribution for communities.