Nutrition North

The Context for and History of Nutrition North

A quarter of Nunavummiut face moderate to severe food insecurity.

The Food Mail Program (FMP) was provided to “49 Inuit communities in the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Labrador (about 30,000 people); 66 First Nation communities in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, the western portion of NWT, Yukon, Labrador, and the James Bay and Lower North Shore regions of Quebec (about 37,000 people); and 37 non-Indigenous communities in southern Labrador (about 22,000 people)” (Hill, 1998, p. 177).

FMP employees monitored the program closely and reviewed compliance on an annual basis through onsite surprise visits.

Every year government employees conducted food costing—including both perishable and nonperishable items—in approximately forty northern communities and the relevant supply centres/food entry points (AANDC, 2008).

The federal government commissioned a report by Graeme Dargo, a partner of Dargo and Associates Consulting Firm, which was carried out in August 2008. Dargo found that although the FMP was necessary for access to affordable and nutritious foods, he believed the program had lost its focus and “vastly exceed[ed] the budget available” further predicting that “the current Program costs will continue to soar and with limited program performance results” (Dargo, 2008, p. 4). He recommended the following:

  • that a market-based system be introduced that would work to develop a new delivery model in partnership with northern retailers;

  • that the base budget of $27.6 million be revised;

  • that management systems to ensure retailers would be “refunded for the subsides they would provide to consumers on behalf of Canada” be developed;

  • that the eligibility criteria for communities and foods/goods be reevaluated;

  • that a new country foods initiative be developed;

  • that subsidy rates that have remained the same since 1993 be revised;

  • that consideration be given to transferring the program to the Department of Health and Welfare;

  • and that performance measurement tools be established (Dargo, 2008, p. 5).

Dargo concluded that the federal government needed to end the FMP in order to contain the rising costs of the FMP and address the breadth of food insecurity in northern Canada, especially among Indigenous people. While Dargo’s report recommended that the FMP be terminated, he also advised that something was still needed to offset the incredibly high costs of food in the North.

In May 2010, the Conservative Government introduced Nutrition North Canada (NNC), which was aimed at limiting the rising costs of the FMP and improving communities’ access to perishable nutritious foods. The program was officially launched in April 2011.

How it Works Now:

To help reduce the cost of perishable nutritious food in eligible isolated, northern communities, NNC provides subsidies directly to registered Northern retailers, Southern suppliers, and Country food processors/distributors, who must apply, meet the program’s requirements and enter into agreements with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), and are accountable for passing on the full subsidy to consumers by reducing the price of subsidized food.

The retail subsidies are applied against the total cost of an eligible product (including product purchasing cost, transportation, insurance and overhead) shipped by air to an eligible community.

The subsidy rate in each community is determined through four criteria that are most important in affecting the price of food:

  • geographical distance from the supply centre to the isolated community

  • distance flown

  • population according to the 2011 Census

  • minimum wage

The amount of the subsidy on food items is calculated using this formula:

subsidy level ($/kg) × weight of eligible item (kg) = $ subsidy payment

Starting April 1, 2016, retailers were required to show the total amount of Nutrition North subsidy-related savings for consumer transparency.


Issues with the Program:

However, employees of the FMP carried out additional studies to assess the impact of the program on food security and dietary intake in selected communities; from 1991 to 2010 more than thirty reports were released by the FMP.

The surprise on-site visits no longer take place. Instead, retailers are self-reporting food costs to Nutrition North with no external oversight. As such, there is no way to track whether or not subsidies are being passed on to consumers.

The Auditor General, in a report that was tabled on November 25, 2014, stated that

Overall, we found that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has not verified whether the northern retailers pass on the full subsidy to consumers. The Department has not required the information it needs to verify this in the contribution agreements it has signed with northern retailers. It also has not required that compliance reviews of northern retailers include analysis of profit margins in order to verify that the full subsidy is being passed on. This finding is important, because passing on the full subsidy to consumers is a program requirement, and is necessary to make nutritious food more accessible and affordable to Northerners.


Changes with the Current Government:

After a series of northern engagement sessions in 2016, the current Liberal Government expanded the list of eligible communities and increased the amount of subsidy available by $64.5M over 5 years, bringing the total program cost to approximately $125M by 2021.


This was part of a platform promise.  However, further reform is needed as food security is still a major issue in northern and remote Canada.  Despite the point of sale initiative to identify on the receipt what items benefit from the subsidy, many consumers are still suspicious about how much savings is being passed down and how much of the subsidy goes toward a retailer’s bottom line.  A huge contributing factor to that is the lack of transparency over freight costs, as retailers have maintained that those qualify as proprietary business practices and therefore confidential.


On May 21, 2019, a renewed spotlight was shone on the failure of Nutrition North to result in food security for northerners.  The Canadian Medical Association Journal comments:


Harvest restrictions and declining wildlife abundance have the potential to exacerbate food insecurity by increasing reliance on store foods, reducing income-earning opportunities, disrupting sharing networks, and limiting opportunities for youth to acquire harvesting knowledge and skills…


The absence of price caps, program accountability and transparency, and limited responsiveness to community needs, have been noted to undermine the ability of the program to meet its goals, along with a neglect of traditional foods and their cultural significance in Nutrition North Canada’s support mechanisms…


Policy changes are required to strengthen harvester support programs (e.g., funding for hunter and trapper organizations), invest in infrastructure and skills development, and support community wellness programs, and must accompany broader efforts focused on poverty reduction, community development, and reconciliation and healing…


Recognizing the need for such cross­cutting systemic action, the Nunavut Food Security Strategy proposes a collective vision and common agenda for impact rooted in Inuit values and knowledge. If we are to avoid going “from bad to worse,” such a vision needs to underpin all our efforts.



Discussing NNC with Nunavummiut

On August 7, 2017, INAC released a summary of evidence report entitled, “Nutrition North Canada Engagement 2016: Final report of what we heard” prepared by Interis/BDO.  It organized the information gathered from multiple engagement sessions into several themes: General Observations, Program Sustainability and Cost-Effectiveness, Capacity and Efficiency, Fairness and Consistency, Transparency, Communications, and Innovation.

After having been advised by the office of the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs that a report with recommendations was forthcoming, Senator Patterson decided to seize the opportunity to provide a contribution to the dialogue by hosting a roundtable with select stakeholders. 

Participants were asked three questions to help facilitate the discussion:

  1. How do you define “food security”?

  2. What criteria and which organization should determine the definition of “nutritious diet” and the basket of goods to be included in the subsidy?

  3. Is there a better program/mix of programs to spend the annual allocation for Nutrition North, which will total $125M by 2021?

The purpose of the roundtable was to produce concrete recommendations that could be potential “out-of-the-box solutions” and table those with Minister Bennett so that they can be considered at the same time as departmental suggestions for moving forward.  Senator Patterson is of the belief that increased funding alone is not the sole answer to this complicated solution.  Northerners need a system that demonstrates the direct benefits of these subsidies and ultimately significantly lowers their regular grocery bill.


On April 12, 2018, in Iqaluit, Senator Patterson hosted six operators who all take advantage of NNC subsidies to gather feedback as to the efficacy of the program and to ask for suggestions on how to improve the program.  Senator Patterson also engaged with the Iqaluit Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO), Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) President Aluki Kotierk, and incorporated contributions made by Arctic Bay Mayor Meeka Kiguktak during the Senator’s March 7, 2018 community visit.  Leesee Papatsie of Feeding My Family was also invited to participate but could not due to scheduling conflicts.  The solutions put forward in “Recommendations for Change” are a direct result of these consultations.