What would each of Canada’s four main political parties do to ease the impact of inflation on the cost of living in northern communities?
At a Wednesday press conference in Ottawa, New Democratic Party leaders challenged the Liberal government to better tackle the rising cost of living for northerners.
During the meeting, Churchill and rural Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Nunavut MP Lori Idlout held up photos from grocery stores and gas stations to highlight prices and contrast them with costs in Ottawa.
They also discussed a report from non-profit Canadians for Tax Fairness that declared top companies had avoided paying $30 billion in taxes in 2021.
“Canada doesn’t just have an inflation crisis, it has an inequality crisis, and nowhere is that more obvious than in northern and Indigenous communities,” said Ashton.
Ashton argued that working people across Canada, but especially in the North, are paying more than ever while corporations announce record third-quarter profits.
“We know that Loblaws, one of the biggest supermarket chains in our country, has announced their profits are up by 30 percent. The reality is that those profits are on the backs of working people on fixed incomes,” she said.
Nunavut MP Idlout called on the Liberals to review and improve the Nutrition North program to ensure savings are being passed on to consumers.
“Northmart took in over $157 million in net earnings in 2021, an increase of 9.7 percent from the previous year. The CEO alone received over $5 million,” said Idlout, referring to a chain of northern stores operated by The North West Company.
“Nutrition North’s budget is $131.3 million. To me, it is a subsidy that only benefits Northmart and other for-profit companies.”
The two MPs suggested reforming Nutrition North so funds go directly to consumers, removing GST on private home heating, adding subsidies to reduce the cost of gas, and implementing a windfall tax on fuel and grocery corporations.
But not every leader believes this is the best strategy.
Following the NDP press conference, we also asked to speak with Liberal, Conservative and Green representatives to hear how their parties believe northerners should be helped to weather the impacts of inflation.
These interviews, recorded this week, have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Liberals: MP Michael McLeod
Cabin Radio: Do you think the NDP’s ideas for lessening the burden on northerners around inflation – lowering taxes and increasing subsidies around food and fuel – make sense?
Michael McLeod: I’ve been in politics for some time now, and my position has always been that we should not be looking to increase subsidies. We should find solutions to the high cost of living in the Northwest Territories. We should be focusing on building roads to our communities, building bridges across some of the rivers that are causing higher freight costs. We should be looking at larger airports, bigger runways.
When I was a minister with the Northwest Territories, the [Nutrition North] subsidy was at $70 million a year. We’re now at $131 million and that number grows every year. I’m happy that we were able to start programs like the harvester support program, the local food infrastructure fund, programs that are designed to ensure Indigenous governments and organizations can best decide how to support their own communities. But I don’t think food security can be solved by one government alone. It’s going to take lots of investments in different areas, including infrastructure, working with all partners, to address food insecurity in the North – that’s really what would make life more affordable.
Are you saying that your party’s Nutrition North program should be discontinued?
Well, I think there’s always room for improvement. I would be very interested in hearing what some of the other governments, including the GNWT and community governments, are suggesting. I think it’s a large undertaking to administer this program but, at the same time, there are some Indigenous governments that feel they should be running any program that deals with their membership, and some have indicated that they would be interested in looking at it.
I think we also could be directing that support at hunters, because there’s potential for them to be doing more than they’re doing now. Almost every small community in the Northwest Territories has been established because it’s a good harvesting area, a good trapping area or fishing area. We saw during the pandemic that so many people were out fishing and hunting, so many people were going to old hunting areas, their grandparents’ cabins, providing for their communities… there was so much sharing going on. How do we help move that forward?
How is the Liberal government planning to address the high cost of fuel in northern communities?
Inflation is a global phenomenon. It’s driven by factors that no single country is responsible for, and no single country can totally insulate everyone from it or solve it on its own. Seventy percent of what Canadians are paying at the pump is determined by crude oil prices going up worldwide – the invasion of Ukraine – and another 25 percent of that price is a result of everything from provincial tax to refining margins. And of course, some of that price is actually the Price on Pollution, but the rebate right now more than covers what consumers are spending on fuel. So I expect there is going to be some belt-tightening this year.
Canada is trying to soften the blow by introducing measures that will offer real and tangible support, like the $8.9 billion affordability plan, a 10-percent increase to old age security for seniors… we cut childcare fees by an average of 50 percent, the Canada child benefit, the Canada pension plan, dental benefits for children under 12, rental support for low income renters, we doubled the GST credit… so we’ve done a significant amount. And we’ll be monitoring how northerners are faring as time goes on.
Conservatives: MP Bob Zimmer
Cabin Radio: How would a Conservative government plan to address the rising costs of living?
Bob Zimmer: Well, I think we’ll start off first by really tackling inflation, which really does stem from this government overspending. By our records, they’ve spent $205 billion above and beyond the Covid response. And that just increases the price of everything across the board. I was up in Inuvik in June and I saw how high food prices were then, and it’s just continuing to rise.
That’s why we’ve been asking the Prime Minister to, at the very least, cut the carbon tax on home heating. And he just refuses to move at all. You know, it’s one thing to have that in Vancouver, where you can possibly turn down your thermostat and be OK, but when you’re in a place like Inuvik or in my hometown of Fort St John in northern BC, staying warm isn’t a luxury.
What would you suggest implementing on a short-term, emergency level to deal with the cost of groceries?
We would immediately freeze the carbon tax on home heating. That would be an automatic. We hear stories where families are deciding between heating their homes or buying food for their kids, they’re skipping meals, they’re watering down soup to keep the thermostat at a tolerable level. So the effects of that would be immediate, and northerners would experience more money in their pocket.
One of the Liberal government’s methods of addressing this issue directly has been Nutrition North. The NDP is saying those subsidies are all ending up in the pockets of grocery store owners and aren’t being seen by customers. Do you agree with them?
Yes, absolutely. This was brought up in the Indigenous Northern Affairs Committee a few weeks ago by Ms Idlout, and my response was that I’m concerned as well. It seems evident to me that prices are still extremely high even with the subsidy. I think we need to look into these complaints and see if there are some things that we can fix there to make sure that money goes more directly to the people that need it.
Let’s talk about fuel costs. During the NDP press conference, we saw photos of high prices at the pumps right now. How would you propose helping northerners deal with those costs, aside from getting rid of the carbon tax?
Well, it all comes back to fuel, right? So if you reduce the carbon tax or eliminate the carbon tax, whether you’re shipping groceries or heating your home, everything’s more affordable. That’s just the reality. In a Cabin Radio article I read that the Northwest Territories announced particularly severe price hikes, an overnight increase of 34 percent, and those prices are holding.
And to me, again… I’ll bring it back to the carbon tax. Because if you were simply to eliminate that, you would see those costs drop dramatically. And in times like this, where there are excessive costs for fuel and energy, you just need to be willing to adjust as a government.
Green Party: MP Elizabeth May
Cabin Radio: What is the Green Party plan for reducing the burden around daily necessities for northerners?
Elizabeth May: The Green approach is to eliminate poverty right across Canada. A guaranteed livable income for all people across Canada would substantially improve, particularly at lower income levels, the ability to withstand impacts of the climate crisis. It’s fair to say that we’re going to see increasing food prices for a considerable time to come, as increasing drought and climate events around the world have an impact on food prices in Canada, but they’re particularly acute for Canada’s north where food prices were already off the charts. So a guaranteed livable income is the first step for all Canadians but particularly important where the issues are acute.
Strengthening of self-government [for Indigenous communities] and all the modern treaties need to be implemented fully and appropriately. Making sure that people aren’t completely dependent on food shipped from California. Funding and developing local food production, whether in hydroponics or vertical food production, using renewable sources of energy. This may sound futuristic, but it wouldn’t take long for some population centres to get local food, whether it’s through greenhouses using solar and wind and geothermal, or green hydrogen… there are many options that we need to look at.
But we need to make sure we’re looking long-term. Stopgap approaches are just not going to be enough to confront what’s going to be – in the words of a book written a number of years ago – the Long Emergency. That’s probably what we’re facing in terms of food prices, climate and energy prices.
I get what you’re saying, in the sense that we need to accept and plan for all of these costs to keep rising, but in a place like the Northwest Territories that’s so reliant on fuel, what would you say to families who are really struggling to afford heating their homes right now?
Well that’s where a guaranteed livable income comes in. That income would be set differently in downtown Vancouver than in Yellowknife, but the goal would be that every Canadian is out of the poverty line, without question, without application for special help. Not any kind of shame-based program where you have to prove you need the money… no, a program where every Canadian has enough money every month.
Now in terms of energy prices, we have to face the reality that fossil fuels are on the way out, which is good, because there are cheaper alternatives. Getting a grid, for instance, that joins us north, south, east, west – a 100-percent renewable electricity grid – is hugely required and needed. This will essentially be a giant battery so that wherever solar, wind or geothermal energy is being generated, it goes into the grid. I’ve met with investors and experts and it is totally feasible to see an electricity grid expansion into the Territories.
This is one of the faster ways to ensure that we have affordable energy for all Canadians – to ensure that our electricity grid is truly national. Right now, it’s not. When you get to southern Canada, you’ll find provincial boundaries between every province. The electricity utilities aren’t interested in… like, Manitoba Hydro isn’t interested in selling into Ontario, they want to sell south. We need the inter-ties to create a national electricity grid that will not only allow us to wheel our renewable energy into other countries but, most importantly, that we have a robust electricity grid to serve the energy needs of Canadians wherever we live.