Manitoba Liberal leader Rana Bokhari visited St. Theresa Point Dec. 22 to announce her party’s pledge of $25 million towards Northern Manitoban food subsidies and nutritional counselling programs. Among those accompanying Rana were provincial candidates Judy Klassen for Kewatinook, Noel Bernier for Point Douglas, and federal Liberal candidate Rebecca Chartrand, who ran against MP Niki Ashton in the Churchill-Kewatinook Aski riding in the 2015 federal election.
Bokhari and her entourage dropped into the Thompson Citizen office during a brief stop in town to discuss the promise. “Things like milk, fresh fruits, vegetables, those things are costing families way too much money, and it’s really affecting their health, especially children. We’re pledging to spend $25 million in our first year in government on this program to ensure Northern Manitobans are getting the food they need to live a healthy lifestyle.”
The subsidy aims to encompass all Northern Manitoban communities, with higher priority placed on more impoverished communities, with regional counsellors distributed between multiple communities. While the Manitoba Liberals have pledged their commitment to the program, communications director Mike Brown says that the details have yet to be worked out, vis-à-vis the extent of the program, and who will directly receive the subsidies. “We want to work with retailers to see what the best way to do that is, whether it’s a subsidy to the individual to take to the grocery store, or something else.”
The federal government’s Nutrition North program provides subsidies to northern retailers for the shipment of fresh, perishable foods. Yet as food costs continue to rise, many northerners believe that the full benefit of subsidies are not being passed down to consumers. (As of April 2016, retailers receiving Nutrition North subsidies will be required to include subsidy information on customer receipts.) “I don’t think we want to make that assumption,” said Bokhari. “We want to measure the results of our programming, and if we’re not getting the results we want, we’ll be making changes. If we find the prices are just going up in line with the subsidies offered, we’ll put a stop to that.”
Manitoba’s NDP government implemented a pilot project for its own provincial subsidies back in October, known as AFFIRM: Affordable Food in Northern Manitoba. Prior to this, the federal NDP had focused on lobbying the federal government to invest an additional $7.5 million into the Nutrition North program, in order to include 46 northern communities across Canada which have been denied the full benefit of subsidies. Nutrition North was also sharply criticized by a fall report from the auditor general’s office for having an “unfair” criteria for eligibility.
The provincial NDP’s pilot project, which has been extended to 10 northern communities, includes five communities which do not receive full, or any, federal subsidies. Bokhari, however, says it’s too little, too late: “You’ve been there for 16 years, your members have represented these communities, and they’ve taken the people of the north for granted all of this time. We’re not going to wait to see if the feds get on board. This isn’t a pilot, this isn’t ‘wait and see.’ this is what northern communities can expect from a Manitoba Liberal government.”