Nunavut leader stands by comments about residents eating from garbage dump due to high food costs

Matt Coutts
Canada Politics
Screengrab from APTN special report 'Wasting Away' on residents in Ranking Inlet forced to scavenge the dump for food.

A Rankin Inlet community leader, who has raised concerns about the price of nutritious food in the North, is refusing to yield to government pressure to retract comments he made about community members having to eat food out of the garbage dump.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network reports that Environment Minister and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq ordered the deputy mayor of Rankin Inlet, Sam Tutanuak, to retract his comment that some Rankin Inlet residents couldn’t afford to buy groceries, and their only option was to scavenge for scraps in the local dump.

The public standoff goes a long way to emphasize the struggle faced by Northern Canadians, who have trouble securing reasonably-priced, nutritional food in their isolated communities.

Obviously, the Nunavut Member of Parliament could find the notion of her people resorting to such measures embarrassing, and has taken steps to shut down the chatter.

It appears Aglukkaq shouldn’t expect an apology any time soon. Tutanuak says there isn’t one coming.

“She wanted to talk to the mayor of Rankin in regards to the comments I had made and that the hamlet of Rankin Inlet should write an apology letter to Leona Aglukkaq and the Conservative party that the Nutrition North program is working,” the deputy mayor told the network.

The issue of Northern nutrition has been a problem for years, as transport costs make it expensive to stock grocery store shelves with perishable items like fruits and vegetables, and keeping residents fed has been a problem.

The Nunavut Bureau of Statistics has suggested that food prices are 140 per cent higher in the territory than elsewhere in Canada.

The federal government has recently taken steps to address the issue, introducing a project called Nutrition North, intended to offset some of the cost.

But the project has received a rocky reception.

Earlier this week the Auditor General of Canada released a report spearing the Conservative government’s food subsidy plan.

The report suggested the government had no way to ensure the program was making food more affordable, or improving the situation at all. It suggests the government subsidy may benefit retailers more than customers.

"[W]e found that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has not verified whether the northern retailers pass on the full subsidy to consumers," reads the report. "The Department has not required the information it needs to verify this in the contribution agreements it has signed with northern retailers."

But the more visceral point in the debate is the notion that Northern residents are forced to seek food from the garbage. The claim was made in a documentary released by APTN, which included footage of the scavenging in question.

But the documentary simply echoes an issue raised in the past.

In March, a Rabble.ca article included reference to an online debate, in which a Northern resident described finding three children eating at the dump because their mother couldn’t afford to buy food.

A report entitled “Hunger in Nunavut,” released by Action Canada, included this first-hand account:

“My heart broke into pieces when I saw them eating at the dump[, I] took them home and fed them good, told them next time when you’re hungry come to my place…kid had tears and said thank-you softly.”

The debate reached the House of Commons this week, following the release of the Auditor General’s report, and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair questioned Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the dump comment.

Harper did not respond, but Aglukkaq reportedly heckled the question.

She was said to have shouted “that’s not true” several times as Harper was questioned about the dump feeding.

Clearly the issue is a sensitive topic for the MP that represents Nunavut. No one wants to be the federal representative whose people are forced to eat garbage to survive.

But if Aglukkaq wants a clear conscience and clean slate, she should focus more on addressing the needs of her people, and making sure the Nutrition North is working as best it can, and less on policing what other people have to say.