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UN slams food security in the North
Aglukkaq meets with right-to-food rep, comes out unimpressed

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 21, 2012

After the Canadian government shut him out on arrival May 5, it appeared the United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, would not get to speak to any government ministers about food security in Canada, an issue of particular interest in Nunavut.

That changed May 15 when Nunavut MP and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq arranged a last-minute meeting for the following morning, De Schutter's final day in the country.

Aglukkaq may have preferred not to have met with him at all.

"I found him to be an ill-informed, patronizing academic studying aboriginal people, the Inuit and Canada's Arctic from afar," she said in the House of Commons during question period hours after the half-hour meeting, during which she explained her background and the importance of hunting to food security in the North.

"Again it is an academic studying aboriginal people in Canada's Arctic without ever setting foot on the ground and walking in our kamiks for a day to get a good understanding of the limitations and opportunities we have as aboriginal people in this country. Again, another academic comes to our region, studies us from afar and draws a conclusion like he has the answer to everything."

Canada has a standing invitation welcoming any UN officials who wish to come to the country. That doesn't mean the Harper government welcomed being the first developed country De Schutter chose to visit.

In fact, cabinet ministers, other than Aglukkaq, refused to meet with him during his visit.

The last-minute meeting coincided with his visit to Ottawa after an itinerary that included many major centres and took him as far north as northern Manitoba, as well as meetings with the federal opposition leaders.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon, her team, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada met with De Schutter the previous week. Despite the fact that Canada is ranked sixth on the human development index, Simon said the Inuit situation is a perfect example of why she welcomed De Schutter's visit.

"In Nunavut 68.8 per cent of households were found to be food insecure by the Inuit Health Survey," she said during a news conference minutes before Aglukkaq's meeting. "It is the highest documented food insecurity rate for any aboriginal population residing in a developed country. And this is not acceptable in the Canada that I live in."

Failing a visit to the North by De Schutter, a meeting with Aglukkaq seemed the most logical option if the Canadian government wanted to give an official Northern and Inuit perspective.

"I took the opportunity to educate him about Canada's North and the aboriginal people who depend on the wildlife that they hunt every day for food security," she told the House.

Those comments, specifically the suggestion that aboriginal people hunt every day for their food, triggered a firestorm in the media and among aboriginal Twitter users, who suggested she was out of touch and should resign. Aglukkaq tried to clarify her position on Facebook.

"My point is that with international organizations trying to ban traditional hunts and fishing, these groups are putting our food security at risk in the North," she stated.

In an email to Nunavut News/North, De Schutter said he hoped to one day visit Nunavut, but was unable to do so on this trip due to time and resources.

"I am disconcerted by the deep and severe food insecurity faced by aboriginal peoples across Canada living both on- and off-reserve in remote and urban areas," he wrote after visiting fly-in aboriginal communities. "It is much harder for these communities to acquire country foods. Instead most are forced to buy food from the only store in their community. These stores, which have complete monopolies in the market, charge exorbitant prices and the quality of food available is often poor."

He also raised concerns about Nutrition North.

"I have also been informed that the program was designed without the input of the communities who are intended to benefit," he wrote. "Concerns have been raised over what communities have access to the program, what goods are subsidized and whether these discounts make their way down to the consumers."

After meeting with Inuit representatives in Ottawa, "What I took away most was the distinct challenges faced by the Inuit in country food collection, and how this has led to a reliance on the costly and often unhealthy foods available for purchase," he wrote. "The costly fuel prices, the changing climate and the lack of seasonal and part-time employment, make it extremely challenging for people to purchase the tools they need to hunt and fish and to be successful in their searching."

The party line, toed by Aglukkaq and Yukon MP Ryan Leef, inspired both to try to divert attention to the plight of those starving in other countries, to which Canadians donate "significant funding to address poverty and hunger around the world," Leef said in the House. Simon hopes the distractions don't work.

"It is our hope that these findings will prompt action to address the disparities that exist for Inuit and the right to food," Simon said. "Inequalities do exist and the right to food is not secure for everyone in Canada."

De Schutter's report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in 2013.

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