In 2012, the then United Nations special rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, visited Canada at the government’s request. It was the first such mission to an industrialized country.
Several government ministers at the time were vocal in their disapproval that a UN office focused on food security should consider a rich country like Canada worth a visit.
The rapporteur acknowledged Canada’s strong performance on several indicators of well-being, including the Human Development Index. (Canada was ranked sixth at the time; in 2015 it was ranked ninth jointly with New Zealand.)
Nonetheless, the special rapporteur also highlighted the “deep and severe” food insecurity faced by Canada’s indigenous peoples, whether living on or off reserve, in rural or urban areas. The rapporteur noted that food insecurity was especially marked in Canada’s North.
A year ago, the Liberal party was elected to office under the leadership of Justin Trudeau. The newly elected prime minister took the unusual step of publishing the mandate letters he sent to his appointed cabinet. Every letter repeated Trudeau’s commitment to healing governmental relations with indigenous peoples.
The letters each said: “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.”
The prime minister also instructed the minister of agriculture to develop a national food policy.
Of course, no amount of well-sounding words in a minister’s mandate letter can suffice to undo the ugly history of Canada’s colonization, a history that includes war, forced displacement, residential schools, broken laws and a continuing legacy of racism. Nor can a mandate letter undo climate change or the environmental pollution that is changing the ecosystems of Canada’s North at breathtaking speed.
A return to food self-sufficiency and traditional diets taken from the land is not an option for most communities; the environmental damage is too great and the population is now both too large and too heterogeneous to make that feasible.
At the same time, the evidence is also overwhelming that the existing system, which moves food across great distances through a highly centralized processing and distribution system to large retail centres, is no longer an option either.
The periphery — in Canada, defined by areas with low purchasing power and small populations — is ignored by this food system. The result is few choices, very high prices and the appalling outcomes for health and well-being documented by Schutter.
Action is necessary, and action is what Trudeau promised. Here is where it can start:
- Accept that a privately operated subsidiary of the food distribution system prevalent in the south is failing the North, even when subsidized.
- Immediate action is essential to strengthen Canada’s notoriously weak environmental regulations to limit further damage to the North resulting from pollution and climate change.
- The government must invest time and money into ending the prevalence of food insecurity in indigenous peoples’ communities. Such an investment must respect the contribution of traditional foods to indigenous peoples’ material and spiritual well-being, and indigenous peoples’ governments and leaders must be engaged in developing and leading new initiatives.
- Discussions are underway to plan a Northern Food Summit to build a shared vision of food security in the North and to elaborate a process for its realization. The federal government should make good on its promise to support the summit, ensuring northerners and indigenous governments are in the lead.
Sophia Murphy is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia and holds a Trudeau and a Vanier scholarship. She is also a senior adviser on trade to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.