On May 16, Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, concluded a politically contentious 11-day visit to Canada for an investigation into poverty and hunger.
During his investigation De Schutter visited several First Nation communities and lower-income urban areas. His visit and findings sparked a political backlash from the Conservative government.
The mere fact that the UN sent a Rapporteur to investigate food security in Canada touched a nerve among Conservative politicians.
Jason Kenney, Citizenship and Immigration Minister, stated, “It would be our hope that the contributions we make to the UN are used to help starving people in developing countries not to give lectures to wealthy and developed countries like Canada. And I think this is a discredit to the United Nations.”
Before he was sent to Canada, De Schutter visited nations such as Syria, China, Mexico, South Africa and Madagascar.
Despite a high UN development ranking, Canada faces severe problems with hunger and food access in First Nation communities and inner-city neighbourhoods.
The latest estimates put the number of food insecure Canadian households at 900,000. These households contain 2.5 million people or 7% of Canada’s total population, all of whom do not know when and from where their next meal is coming. These people depend on food banks and other forms of government assistance.
Members of First Nation communities are disproportionally represented among these households.
Geographic isolation and high costs for healthy food have led to two seemingly contradictory effects on Native communities. Natives are far more likely to be among the hungry while also suffering from diabetes and obesity.
Traditional methods of acquiring food, such as hunting and fishing, are threatened by environmental degradation and as a result more Natives are turning to cheaper unhealthy processed foods.
Even those communities that have access to healthy foods find it challenging to promote a healthy lifestyle. Cynthia Kapashesit, an employee at the Moose Cree Health Centre, said it is harder to live healthy because “access to healthy food is minimal; it would be nice to have more variety.”
De Schutter acknowledged these challenges and criticized existing government programs, such as the Nutrition North Canada Program (NNCP), for inefficiencies, lack of Native involvement, and even raising the cost of food.
He stated, “What I’ve seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.”
De Schutter called for a national food conference to reform existing systems of food distribution through taxes on unhealthy processed food products, increasing locally grown food, and more subsidies for healthier food.
For Native communities, De Schutter suggested more support for traditional diets, Native input in government food welfare programs, and increased consultation about development projects that affect First Nations.
There is little political will among Conservatives to implement such policies despite the fact that during the last federal election the Tories promised a national farm and food strategy to support local farms thus increasing food security.
The Conservative government rebutted De Schutter’s suggestions with vigour.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq had harsh words for De Schutter. “He’s ill-informed. I found it a bit patronizing – another academic studying us from afar who’s going to make comments about the challenges we have,” she said.
Members of the Liberal Party and New Democratic Party have echoed De Schutter’s sentiments and decried the Conservative response.
Liberal interim leader Bob Rae challenged the government to address the issues at hand “rather than attacking the person who delivers the message”.
In a response to De Schutter’s assessment, Aglukkaq assured everyone that Native people should not need to worry about food security because “they hunt every day”.