U.N. to Canada: Ignoring Hunger Won’t Make It Go Away

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.

Related Care2 Stories

U.N. Investigates Canada’s Right to Food Record

More Hungry Canadians: Canada’s Food Bank Use on the Rise

Food Justice Is Racial Justice


Photo credits: 1,3 and 4 Thinkstock; Photo 2 from Walter Schwabe (@fusedlogic) via Flickr Creative Commons


Hannah Scrivener
Hannah S4 years ago

And here I thought Canada was perfect; thanks for bursting that bubble. Seriousness: I don't think Canada's necessarily at fault here; and how does the UN have any say over the matter?

Lovely Devaya
Lovely Devaya5 years ago

Very well said ... but is anybody listening?!!!!!!!!!!!

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian5 years ago

Hi Amber,

The discussion of power-sources arose in a discussion of how to set up off-grid economies. One of the major issues with food-supplies is getting them to markets. They are extremely bulky and spoil, and the supply absolutely must be kept steady. On top of that, extreme-rural groups in Canada tend to be seriously poor. A functional small-scale economy permitting local production and wealth would go a long way towards improving conditions in general, though, after looking at the numbers, I still don't think Canadians actually have a problem with access to food whatever the UN Special Rapporteur says. I brought up the Gen4 reactors because they are designed not to need refuelling or repair for a decade, making them very good for powering off-grid economies and helping Canada's poorest people.

Hi Shirley,

The original industrial revolution nearly destroyed the artisan-class. However, the products were just repriced to be affordable to the poor. While the poor certainly had a smaller share of the wealth and power, looking at the goods and services to which they had access, they very quickly recovered the pre-industrial level of real personal wealth. For example, one of the major differences between the two periods, just before and after the revolution, is access to socks. Only the wealthy had them before. We don't generally think of it now, but socks move moisture away from the feet and prevent rubbing on the skin, preventing fungal and other infections as well a

Shirley Hill
Shirley Hill5 years ago

Yoo hoo Stephen,
Non-muscle power may make manufacturing cheaper ...but it can't purchase the goods it makes...ever. If the "muscle power" is put out of work for the sake of efficiency, honey, no one can buy the goods. Most of North American manufacturing has been put out of work based on that idea and on the fact that 3rd world workers are cheaper, and haven't the labor or health and safety protections that we consider part of the 20th century.The manufacturing cost of most 3rd world products is peanuts, the workers earn peanuts but the goods are sold at just enough cost to keep North American manufacturing dead. Lack of environmental law, means off-shore manufacturers aren't responsible for the messes they create and leave behind. Henry Ford understood that workers need to earn enough money to purchase the products they are making. That idea is the basis of all North America's past prosperity. In the 1970's, Trade barriers were dropped to allow a prosperity sell out of N.A. by our own governments.
Our own manufacturing corporations then moved off shore to participate in the easy wealth created by putting North Americans out of work. These ex-pat manufacturers are now super rich 1% and are not being taxed while the economy is progressively destroyed. There is a greater disparity of wealth now than in the Victorian era
Purchase of all the "goods" made above falls to accessing the good old North American consumer who 30 years ago was the envy of the world, and is

Lucy H.
Lucy E5 years ago

Amber - scroll back and read the whole thread and it will make sense. The fact is, oil drives just about everything, including farming and food availability.

Amber M.
Angela Roquemore5 years ago

@Stephen B.: What does THIS have to do with FOOD?! I donlt see that oil/nuke power has a damned thing to do with food unless you;re talking about that to GROW more food for those Candians suffering food insecurity.

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian5 years ago

Hi Shirly,

Sorry about the cutoff:

There may be fairly good ways of doing this: I ran the numbers a while back and found that if the U.S. coal-plants went nuclear and used the waste-heat to turn coal into synthetic oil, they would roughly meet 10% of U.S. demand, which is about the same as Canada's oil-consumption or about 2% of global demand. It doesn't sound like much, but that is equivalent to Libyan or Albertan production. More importantly, China uses 3x as much coal as the U.S. and with a command-economy, it would probably have an easier time converting to nuclear. Of course, conversion on that scale would require that Australia open up its vast uranium and thorium reserves to mining.

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian5 years ago

Hi Shirly,

Industrialization originally came from the steam-engine and the mechanization of farms that it allowed. That created a massive labour-surplus, eliminating labour-shortages and creating unemployment, tipping the labour-market to the buyer's (employer's) favour and allowing the creation of factories. The steam-engine's non-muscle-based energy and the relatively lower compensation of labourers allowed vastly increased production, leading to the modern economy (though with unions and specialization of labour the market has tipped back quite a lot). Oil is not necessarily central, but non-muscle-power is.

Companies say the break-even price of Alberta oil is $50-$75 per "barrel" (~160 liters). That would put it at below $0.50/liter. I don't know if the low end includes things like wages, property-tax, other fixed costs, transport-costs, or accounts for any special tax-credits, but it still seems so much lower than current prices (~$90-$100 / barrel) that even with those they should be fine even below current prices. ($1.3 billion per year in the oil sands would translate into $2.7 per barrel., or about $0.02 per liter) I do want to see a move to greater efficiency and other viable sources, but in the meantime the best bet is probably to increase the oil-supply until those other sources are mature and in place. There may be fairly good ways of doing this: I ran the numbers a while back and found that if the U.S. coal-plants went nuclear and used the waste-heat to tu

Marg Wood
Marg W5 years ago

Shirley H. If you are not already involved in politics, you should be!
We need bright intelligent young people who are capable of searching for rational solutions. Unlike the present government based on greed and American style politics! I would vote for you!

Gagandeep Singh
Gagandeep Singh5 years ago

Get to work UN!