Before UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food even arrived in Canada, the Harper government let Olivier De Schutter know he was not welcome. The message was: we are a rich country. We send money to the United Nations to deal with real hunger. Don’t waste it on a trip to Canada, which has no hunger problems.
So De Schutter came. As expected, all but one federal minister refused to meet with him. When the Rapporteur dared criticize Canada, the government and some of Canada’s media let loose a torrent of invective. Others spoke strongly in support of the envoy, but Canada is left with egg on its face in international circles.
The Envoy’s Initial Reflections
Here is an excerpt from De Schutter’s initial reflections after his visit to Canada:
Canada has long been seen as a land of plenty. Yet today one in ten families with a child under six is unable to meet their daily food needs. These rates of food insecurity are unacceptable, and it is time for Canada to adopt a national right to food strategy.
What I’ve seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and Aboriginal non-Aboriginal peoples. Canada is much admired for its achievements in the area of human rights, which it has championed for many years. But hunger and access to adequate diets, too, are human rights issues — and here much remains to be done.
In a country as wealthy as Canada, hunger is the result of social policy. When government slashes spending on social programs, throws thousands of government workers out of jobs, tightens the noose around the unemployed, and ignores its stated commitments to improving the lives of First Nations people, food insecurity is one of the results. To pretend otherwise is cruel.
Minister of Health Fights Back
The one cabinet member who agreed to meet with De Schutter was Health Minister Aglukkaq. She comes from Gjoa Haven in Nunavut, so might have been expected to understand his concern for the desperate situation of so many of Canada’s northern peoples. After meeting with the envoy, she was quoted by CBC News:
He’s ill-informed. I found it a bit patronizing and [just] another academic studying us from afar who’s going to make comments about the challenges that we have.
[Food insecurity is] about the fights that we have with groups like [the] European Union that want to stop the seal hunt and/or [the] Pew Foundation who wants to put a moratorium on fishing and/or the polar bear activists.
We continue to live off the land, eat the seal meat, eat the polar bear meat and whatnot. And the collective implications of environmentalists, activists, whether it be the fish plus the seal plus the bear, leaves very little for us as Inuit and Aboriginal people of Canada’s Arctic with very little to eat.
It’s about fighting environmentalists that try and put a stop to our way of life, our way of life and hunting, to provide for our families.
Inuit and First Nations Leaders Support the Visit
The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Council, who also met with the Special Rapporteur, presented a very different view in their submission:
[T]the current inability for a significant portion of Inuit to access safe, sufficient, nutritionally adequate, and socially acceptable food is undermining the well being of the population and the very integrity of the culture. Although the health of Canadian Aboriginal Peoples has been identified as a pressing issue, action to address the right to food in Inuit communities is insufficient. Immediate intervention is needed through the collaborative engagement of various levels of government, Inuit organizations and communities to develop a resolution if the situation is to be improved.
The Assembly of First Nations National Chief “expressed gratitude to Dr. Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, for engaging with First Nations leaders and communities in gathering information regarding food security particularly in northern communities.”
Minister Aglukkaq may speak for government, but she is out of touch with the people she supposedly represents.
Government Splits Along Party Lines
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney joined Minister Aglukkaq in dismissing De Schutter’s visit and recommendations. CTV Winnipeg had this quote:
We think the UN (World) Food Program should focus its efforts on those countries where there is widespread hunger, widespread material poverty and not get into political exercises in developed democracies like Canada.
The opposition New Democrats welcomed De Schutter’s recommendations. NDP Aboriginal Affairs Critic, Jean Crowder, said:
Like it or not, the situation is bleak for millions of Canadians. Food security is a right. Hunger and malnutrition are unacceptable anywhere, but especially in a country as wealthy as Canada.
The NDP Agriculture Critic, Malcolm Allen, spoke out in favor of a national food strategy and said:
It’s the least fortunate who must choose between paying their rent and putting food on the table. That’s not a choice Canadians should have to make.
Media Pundits Weigh in on Both Sides
Sun Media’s Brian Lilley said in the London Free Press:
In short, De Schutter wants Canada to adopt the kind of European socialism that has led to the crash on the continent and unemployment rates as high as 21%.
You get the feeling after listening to this guy and questioning him, as I did, that he came and listened to like-minded activists but had his mind made up before he ever set foot on Canadian soil.
The National Post’s Marni Soupcoff wrote, “He’s here in the hopes of spreading an entire ideology as much as he is to promote any simple food strategy or hunger policy.”
On the other hand, Toronto Star Business Columnist David Olive wrote, “I feel ashamed to be a Canadian today.” Acknowledging Canada’s need to address problems of poverty, growing income inequality and food insecurity, he continued:
No, what shames me is the churlish response of my federal government to the U.N’s honest, good-faith call to action.
…If anything, De Schutter was overly diplomatic about the challenges we face. Three million of us are enduring some measure of deprivation, from dire poverty to struggling to make ends meet. That includes more than 600,000 children.
We not only have a growing gap between rich and poor, but it’s growing faster in Canada than most rich countries. Our middle class hasn’t seen a pay raise in 30 years. Meanwhile, Brazil has been narrowing its income gap, by an average of 1.5 per cent a year, over the past decade.
Doug Cuthland, in a special to The Star Phoenix, wrote:
The Conservative strategy is clear. Have an Inuit politician parrot the party line, thus making the issue internal to aboriginal people. In the House of Commons question period she was answering questions directed toward Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
Sadly this is a federal government that would rather fight and turn people against one another than deal with the very important issues of poverty and malnutrition.
Food Security Falls on Volunteer Shoulders
While the federal government struts like the emperor who had no clothes, volunteers around Canada struggle to keep food insecurity from becoming starvation for the thousands of families who turn to food banks, soup kitchens and other non-profit initiatives. Those responses to poverty sprang up in the 1980s as a temporary measure during an economic downturn. Successive governments have seen them as a solution to food insecurity rather than what they are, a stop-gap measure that should be embarrassing to a rich country.
Across Canada, thousands of committed volunteers support organizations like Food Secure Canada, Food Banks Canada and the many local and regional groups working for a just and sustainable food system.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, the well-fed architects of Canada’s shattered safety net throw barbs at a UN envoy who is only speaking the truth.
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Photo credits: 1,3 and 4 Thinkstock; Photo 2 from Walter Schwabe (@fusedlogic) via Flickr Creative Commons