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What’s behind the high cost of food in Canada’s North?

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Food insecurity in the Northwest Territories remains a pressing issue

High food prices in the Northwest Territories aren’t new, but what isn’t often talked about is the struggle many across the territory face to simply eat. In Inuvik, a trucker comes up from B.C. every two weeks to sell fresh produce from his truck—but he can’t make it year-round. Remote communities throughout the N.W.T. increasingly rely on food banks. Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, population 117, receives government funding to feed its homeless people. Wrigley, population 153, Paulatuk, 327, and Ulukhaktok, 428, do the same.

Myriad factors mean these Arctic hamlets need food banks: The high costs of operating grocery stores in the North, climate change, the decline of wild foods (called country food in the North), cultural change, resource extraction, and environmental contamination create a situation where food is inaccessible. In a territory where borders have changed drastically since Canada was created, big changes continue to occur.

Indigenous people make up exactly half the N.W.T.’s population of 44,469, with most non-Indigenous living in the city of Yellowknife.

“People were largely self-sufficient,” says France Benoit, president of the Yellowknife Farmer’s Market. “But then what happened is when they put the road in, it’s no different than anywhere else in Canada—all of a sudden, food is being trucked from elsewhere.”

In Inuvik, population 3,140, there is one food bank, a homeless shelter, and a community lunch program. At the food bank, demand is outstripping donations so community members now must pay small sums for discounted flats of food. According to a 2013 peer-reviewed paper by James D. Ford, the town has a food insecurity rate of 43 percent—five times the Canadian average.

Benoit says colonial settlement deeply affected food systems in the N.W.T. “[Indigenous groups] were going to the barren lands and then coming back according to the seasons,” she says. “They were using entire areas.” When the N.W.T. was created, various cultural groups were forced together into settlements. In the past, “people were able to take care of each other.”

While game, fish, and berries remain central to many people’s diets, only 14 percent of N.W.T. households get more than three-quarters of their meat and fish directly from the land. Most people in the N.W.T. would like to eat more of it, especially caribou, a traditional staple. But, according to the State of Rural Canada, a 2015 report by non-profit Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, these foods aren’t as plentiful now. The Bathurst caribou, for example, that roam near the arctic hamlets that now have food banks, have declined from roughly 450,000 animals in the mid-1980s to around 20,000 today.

And now that most people rely on food from grocery stores, high costs are a looming issue. Duane Wilson of Arctic Co-operatives, the support centre for grocery co-ops across the territory, worked in food transportation in the co-op for years.

Building a store that sells to a limited number of people, with utilities up to 10 times more expensive while you store a year’s worth of goods in a heated warehouse, is challenging, he says. And on top of it when something breaks you might need to fly an expert in.

“And we’re going to expect that it’s going to have the same prices as the Walmart Supercentre. Does that sound reasonable to you?”

Ice roads are also more expensive to truck on. Seasonal road and ferry closures mean most N.W.T. communities need to fly their supplies in at least part of the time. Others use marine barges, though the lack of developed ports means it’s costlier. And climate change is altering some harbours, making access even harder. It’s expensive to transport supplies to build new stores. Electricity is five to 10 times more in parts of the North, according to a 2015 government-commissioned study on Northern food retail.

“Many of the co-op retail operations actually are done at a loss to serve their community,” says Wilson. “This truly is life and death for people.”

Despite this, at least some food remains affordable. In Yellowknife, gala apples go for $1.99 a pound. At NorthMart in Inuvik, they’re $3.17 a pound. Prices checked in May 2017 on pears, eggs, milk, and yogurt in both locations were similarly comparable. As the State of Rural Canada report points out however, the standard cost of basic food items is often higher.

Laura Rose manages the Hay River soup kitchen (population 2,728). Despite increasing reliance on the food bank in her community, she points to positive happenings in the N.W.T. “There’s more gardening and growing one’s own food in some of the different communities that’s starting to take off,” she says. “The green thumb bug is catching on with people.”

There’s the Inuvik community greenhouse, dubbed the most northerly greenhouse in North America, housing community plots and a commercial portion.

In Hay River, the non-profit Northern Farm Training Institute has a mission to empower people to restore Northern food systems. Benoit praises Yellowknife organization Food Rescue that collects grocery store food before it’s thrown out and redistributes it to community organizations.

“The land, plants, animals, and humans hold a kin interrelationship that has consummated livelihoods for generations,” reads the State of Rural Canada report on the N.W.T. “Resilience is central to this landscape.” May it be so.

 

This article was first published in the July/Aug 2017 issue of This Magazine. https://this.org/2017/07/25/whats-behind-the-high-cost-of-food-in-canadas-north/

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Tories in review: Environment

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Examining Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party’s dismal environmental track record, full of broken promises and missed opportunities for a greener Canada

WHEN IT COMES TO THE ENVIRONMENT, Stephen Harper doesn’t have a hidden agenda—he’s always been upfront about his healthy-industry-over-healthy-Earth policies. In 2006, for instance, in his first speech outside Canada after he was elected as prime minister, he called Canada an “emerging energy superpower,” suggesting his intention to expand oil sands production. “And that has been his environment policy,” says Keith Stewart, PhD, who teaches energy policy at the University of Toronto and campaigns with Greenpeace Canada.

Since that first speech, Canada’s international environmental reputation has shifted quickly under the Harper Conservatives. We were once considered an influential environmental leader, but now are what famed environmentalist Bill McKibben calls, “an obstacle to international climate concerns.” That’s thanks to several major changes, the breadth of which we’ll review here.

INTERNATIONAL EMBARRASSMENT
After signing the Kyoto Protocol on carbon pollution in 1997, Canada withdrew 14 years later in late 2011. It’s the only country to have done so. Then in 2013, the government pulled out of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification—and again has done so solo. Established in 1994, the convention is a key legally-binding international agreement addressing environment, development, and sustainability. Listen: you can hear Canada’s diplomatic credibility crumbling.

DEMOLISHING LAWS
In 1992, the Government of Canada enacted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, created to evaluate and mitigate negative environmental effects possibly caused by industrial projects. In 2012 the entire act was repealed and replaced with “CEAA 2012.” The new version applies to a much smaller scope of projects, expands ministerial discretion, and narrows the scope of assessments. The Canadian Environmental Law Association called this “an unjustified and ill-conceived rollback of federal environmental law.”

After the change, nearly 3,000 environmental project assessments were cancelled. As a result, environmentally- harmful projects will face less red tape in gaining approval. “It’s streamlining the review process for our pipelines,” quips Peter Louwe, communications officer for Greenpeace Vancouver.

RUINING PROTECTIONS
Besides weakening The Fisheries Act to the point where it doesn’t protect most fish, the Cons have also rewritten The Navigable Waters Protection Act so that it no longer protects most lakes and rivers. “There is no environmental protection for our waters unless there’s a commercial aspect to it,” says Louwe. Since Canada contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water as well as the world’s longest coastline, changes to these acts are of worldwide concern.

SILENCING SCIENCE
After Environment Canada senior research scientist David Tarasick published on one of the biggest ozone holes ever found over the Arctic in 2011, he was forbidden to speak with media for nearly three weeks. Once given permission, his calls were supervised by Environment Canada officials. In speaking of the incident, he wrote to a reporter, “My apologies for the strange behaviour of EC [Environment Canada],” adding if it were up to him, he’d grant the interview.

All federal scientists now face regulations from Ottawa deciding if they can talk, how, and when. Approved interviews are taped, and often approval is not forthcoming until after deadlines have passed. When this happens, journalists receive government-approved written answers. Between 2008-2014, the federal government cut the jobs of more than 2,000 scientists. In 2014, it announced plans to close seven of its 11 Fisheries and Oceans Canada libraries.

HIT ’EM WHERE IT HURTS
Environment Canada, the government department charged with protecting the environment, is quickly having its capacity drained. Between 2010- 2012, the federal government cut 20 percent of its budget (made official right after the Cons became a majority), and from 2014– 2017 another 28 percent will be cut. This translates to hundreds of job losses and lost programs.

Environment Canada’s ozone-monitoring program, host to the world’s archive of ozone data and relied upon by scientists worldwide, had several monitoring stations closed due to lack of funding, and the lone person running the archives was laid off.

The list goes on: the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which has provided research on sustainable development since 1988, and was established by a previous Conservative government, is no more. Also included in the cuts: Monitoring for heavy metals and toxic contaminants, the Climate Action Network, Sierra Club of B.C., The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, and many other organizations.

AUDITS
Meanwhile the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is auditing charities. In 2012 the government tightened rules and created a special budget so the CRA could check on charities’ political activities. EthicalOil.org, founded by Harper’s aide Alykhan Velshi, made a series of complaints to the CRA about environmental groups. The David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, Equiterre, and Environmental Defence, three of those EthicalOil.org targeted in its complaints, were audited—though the government denies any link with CRA’s activities.

THE KICKER
“I think C-51 should just be repealed because of the way it targets First Nations and environmentalists,” says U of T’s Stewart. This piece of legislation, adopted in June, adds power to security agencies collecting information on anything that “undermines the security of Canada,” including interfering with economic stability or “critical infrastructure.” It also gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service power to react to these perceived threats. Many environmentalists and activists believe this means them. An RCMP document obtained by Greenpeace labels the “anti-petroleum movement” as a growing and violent threat.“There’s not much more damage that one person would be able to do to the environment of a country,” says Vancouver’s Louwe, referring to Harper.

And yet, the Harper government hasn’t managed to build any pipelines. In the face of such blatant injustice, Canadian people have risen up, building a stronger environmental movement that is not only more resolved, but broader, including people from a wider range of backgrounds and interests than before. And Stewart points out that although this government has done a lot for industry, the more obvious it becomes to the public that its government is acting as a cheerleader for big oil, the less social licence industry has in people’s minds. And this means that whatever the legacy of the Harper government leaves us, it also leaves a more politicized, involved, and activated country of people who will do what it takes to protect what matters.

 

First published in Sept/Oct 2015 issues of This Magazine

https://this.org/2015/09/21/tories-in-review-environment/

Written by larkinschmiedl

March 13, 2016 at 7:28 pm

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