MP Michael McLeod explains decision to vote against Nutrition North changes

NWT MP Michael McLeod voted against the NDP's move to overhaul Nutrition North because "it failed to propose any concrete suggestions to actually improve the program," he said several days after the proposal was struck down.

"The text of the motion called for 'reforms' to the program, but made no effort to specify what these reforms would look like," said McLeod, a member of the Liberal Party. "I could not support a motion that simply proposes change for the sake of change."

Nutrition North was implemented in 2011 and aims to make perishable, nutritious food more accessible and more affordable for residents of isolated Northern communities through subsidies. However, there has been widespread criticism — largely from members of the NDP such as Nunavut MP Lori Idlout — suggesting that the program's subsidies are ending up in the coffers of large grocery changes, rather than being passed on to consumers.

“The Liberals have been promising reviews and studies for months now but have failed to act,” Idlout said in a news release shortly after the motion to reform Nutrition North was denied by members of the Liberal and Conservative parties. “New Democrats have been pushing the government to reform Nutrition North to help Northerners afford their groceries, after the Conservatives under Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper changed it so the subsidy goes to big box stores. The NDP wants the money to help people – not rich CEOs.”

“Northerners deserve transparency on how Nutrition North works for them,” continued Idlout. “It’s not right that at a time when people can’t afford their groceries that the North West Company CEO is making millions of dollars in his salary and bonuses. His own employees only make $21 an hour as well, meaning they can barely afford their own groceries."

Questions and internal reviews

Idlout hosted a parliamentary committee hearing last month where the CEO of North West, Daniel McConnell, was questioned about the use of the subsidy program.

The committee comprised not just the CEO of NorthWest, but a group of several of the large corporate conglomerates that continue to maintain stranglehold monopolies on Northern services and products. The purpose of the committee was to undertake "an internal review of Nutrition North" as "companies are earning extremely high profits off Northerners’ food insecurity while accepting federal subsidies."

"For me, it was about trying to get information regarding how Nutrition North is being used, compared to what needs to be done to alleviate poverty," said Idlout in a May 23 interview with Nunavut News. "The Liberal government has not given us that information, which was why I was compelled to call the CEOs to summon them because tax dollars are being used to support corporate greed."

What emerged under Idlout's questioning was that while McConnell could not recall the exact number of his own salary or bonuses (despite referencing various figures related to the program in the hundreds of millions), public records revealed that McConnell made over $1 million in bonuses in 2023, in addition bonuses he received in 2021 and 2022.

When contacted for comment, North West Company provided the following statement:

"The Nutrition North program is an important lifeline for reducing grocery costs by providing a customer subsidy through retailers like us. We pass the entire subsidy to our customers," they stated. "We have been audited by the Government of Canada and found in compliance with the program.

"Although the Nutrition North Program is an important tool for lowering costs, it does not fix the underlying infrastructure and supply chain issues that cause high costs in the first place. We are already seeing serious disruptions to this summer’s lower-cost seasonal supply routes, which will continue to make supplying northern retailers more challenging and expensive."

Transparency, funding, and the future of food in the North

"I'm quite disappointed," said Idlout in a June 11 interview with Nunavut News on the defeat of the motion to reform Nutrition North, adding that the NDP had been calling for this since 2022. "I've been asking many different questions and the responses from the Minister [of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal] have been completely inadequate. Time and again, I have been trying to get him to realize the program is not working.

"I've been to all 25 [Nunavut] communities now, and every community has mentioned that the cost of groceries is unaffordable, and that food is arriving expired. Every time I've tried to ask about Nutrition North, all that I would ever hear is that they're working on it, they're working on it, there's more work left to do. It got to the point where I called the hearing, and learning how much the North West Company is profiting, learning what [McConnell's] salary is, all the evidence is showing that the program is not working to alleviate poverty to the level that it's supposed to."

McLeod said he is "supportive of the ongoing work by the department to conduct an internal and comprehensive review of the retail subsidy, which will be followed by an external audit."

"This process is critical to ensure that the subsidy can be as effective as possible at making healthy and nutritious food more affordable for Northerners," he added.

The NWT MP also noted that the Nutrition North program will imminently receive more funding through the investments laid out in Budget 2024 "including $23.2 million towards the retail subsidy, as well as $101.1 million to support the Harvesters Support Grant and Community Food Program Fund."

"This grant and fund are key parts of the broader Nutrition North program, and focus on improving access to locally harvested and grown foods by working with hunters & trappers and other community organizations," he said.

Idlout said she plans to keep working with Minister Vandal to make improvements.

"They want to keep delaying the delivery of a better program? Well, I'm going to keep working to expedite the improvement of the program. There are too many Nunavummiut living in poverty," she said.

Kira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunavut News