Ontario distribution plan for North aims to lower food costs

DRESDEN, Ont. — Remote communities in northwestern Ontario are moving toward what is hoped to be an answer to their chronic shortage of fresh food.

A new logistics plan is set to start by 2018, which is centred on a regional distribution centre to be built at the Sioux Lookout airport, according to Vicki Blanchard, economic development manager with the Municipality of Sioux Lookout.

“We’re working with Indian Affairs and the communities to establish the regional distribution centre, specifically to ship food, essential goods and medical supplies to the north. The reason is to decrease the costs,” Blanchard said.

“Billions of dollars have been spent in subsidies, and it certainly hasn’t been going to feed the mouths of babes.”

Northwestern Ontario is home to a third of Canada’s far north communities, where the federal government subsidizes food shipments. There are 33 communitieswith a population of more than 30,000. They can be reached by road in winter road but only by air for the rest of the year.

Blanchard said there’s currently a circuitous route serving the communities, and orders occasionally fail to show up at all.

The plan is to move food more efficiently using Sioux Lookout airport, the fourth busiest in Ontario. The community of 5,000 is about five hours from Winnipeg by transport truck.

A joint report indicates that costs can be reduced with a better logistics plan by pooling procurement and consolidating shipments to reduce plane trips required.

Ryan Sakakeep, head councillor at Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, said his priority is to find a better way to bring fresh food to his community.

Four litres of milk retail for more than $12 in his community, which is more than double the price in Sioux Lookout.

“It’s expensive, and vegetables are usually brought in frozen in bags. They try to get in as much fresh berries and fruit and things like that, but it’s usually not a lot,” Sakakeep said. “We never run out of food or supplies, but there is room for improvement, fresher food.… We have everything that every other small town has, except a highway.… The regional distribution centre would be an improvement.”

Sakakeep said Kitchenuhmay-koosib Inninuwug and other remote communities in northwestern Ontario are not without resources. Potatoes were planted in a community garden around the end of May and harvested in September.

As well, members of the community hunt, fish and gather.

When he has enough time, Sakakeep said he’s able to fill about five, four-litre bags with smoked fish, which he distributes among the community’s elders. He also hunts in the spring and fall for partridge, grouse and waterfowl.

Other community members hunt moose and caribou.

“If we have a crisis here, we come together, but if I were in Ottawa or Toronto, I’d likely be on my own. Here we help each other,” Sakakeep said.

Chief Clifford Bull of the Lac Seul First Nation said remote communities have faced another issue in recent years — climate change.

“In winter, there’s access to winter roads over ice, but for the last couple years, it’s been limited because the weather has been warmer. It’s an important factor,” Bull said.

Barry King, who’s worked for the band for the past 24 years, is also upbeat about the regional distribution centre. He said the federal subsidy is needed to make it work, and the focus needs to be on fresh food and essential goods.

King said it can be a challenge developing a reverse economy. There’s a high cost to moving goods south, and additional infrastructure is needed for initiatives such as developing a commercial fishery.

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