Nunatsiaq Online
EDITORIAL: Around the Arctic May 30, 2012 - 12:25 pm

Two things you’ll hate reading about

NUNATSIAQ NEWS

We don’t know who, exactly, is responsible for composing Leona Aglukkaq’s talking points.

But whoever it is, she should fire them. Or at least transfer her or him to a task where she or he may be less likely to inflict potentially catastrophic damage on the Nunavut MP’s political career.

The phrase “talking points,” by the way, is insider jargon for those lists of pre-scripted lines and phrases politicians must memorize and regurgitate on command. You’ve got it made when you can make your listeners believe you thought it all up by yourself and recite your lines with all the fake sincerity you can muster.

But this past May 16,  when the Harper government brains trust sent Aglukkaq out to discredit Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on food security, such techniques accomplished little for her or her constituents.

They, and Aglukkaq, forgot that if her Nunavut constituency were a country, it would rank 100th in the world with respect to life expectancy. A report containing those findings, done by a respected group of Ottawa-based social researchers, appeared just two days after Aglukkaq aimed her flame-thrower at De Schutter.

Bad timing, to say the least. The report found that, overall, Nunavut would rank only 38th on the UN’s human development index, a measurement tool that combines life expectancy, education and income.

In a more thoughtful response, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in their submission prepared for De Schutter, pointed to a far more relevant issue than anything contained in the straw man abuse featured within Aglukkaq’s rant. 

That issue lies at the heart of hunger and want in Nunavut: low incomes.

In their submission, ITK quoted public domain statistics showing that about half of Inuit households in Nunavut earn less than $20,000 a year.

“When you consider that the average cost of groceries for this population was $380 per week ($19,760 a year) or 99 per cent of their income, it is easy to see how the cost of food can be an insurmountable barrier,” ITK’s report said.

With respect to the cost of food, we’ve heard much complaining in Nunavut about food prices these past few weeks, especially prices charged by the big, bad North West Co.

This means you’re going to hate reading what we’re about to say next.

And that is that food prices in Nunavut are not — for the most part — excessive when compared with the cost of all other goods and services in the territory.

Retailers in Nunavut do not rack up exorbitant profits and they do not gouge consumers. Food prices are reasonable. Nunavut’s big problem is low income, not high prices.

The North West Co. in 2011 earned a trading profit of only 8.8 per cent. You can look it up on their latest financial report, available on the internet for anyone to read.

That number represents the difference between what the firm paid suppliers to make its merchandise available and what it received in sales revenue from customers — before taxes and other expenses.

So if you reduced that firm’s profit margin to zero, you would reduce its retail prices, overall, by less than 10 per cent. Remember that two-pound pack of ground beef in Coral Harbour that cost $16.99? Eliminate the North West Co.’s profit and you would reduce the price on that pack of ground beef to — wait for it — $15.49.

In reality, retailers impose mark-ups of between five and 30 per cent, depending on the item and on how much of it they sell and how quickly or slowly it sells. But the numbers don’t lie. Grocery retailers in Nunavut do not gouge consumers. Their prices are not excessive.

One Nunavut food price protestor said in a Facebook posting that boycotters should aim to “devastate” the North West Co. Okay. Go ahead and try. Because in the extremely unlikely event that the North West Co. were ever “devastated,” Nunavut would lose an abundant supply of market food.

This leads to another reality that you’re going to hate reading about. High prices are useful. So are profits. They ensure that firms will continue to supply you with the essential goods that you demand of them.

So if Aglukkaq wished to be honest about the issue, that is what she would say. She would also say that governments at all levels have little or no control over prices.

Of course, Aglukkaq and all other elected politicians will never be honest with you about that. To do so means risking political annihilation, because it means saying what you don’t want to hear.

Yes, subsidy programs like Nutrition North can stabilize some retail prices. But subsidies don’t change the real price of any item. They merely change the identity of who pays. With NNC, it’s the federal government who steps in to share a bit of the price burden.

But Aglukkaq, who accused De Schutter of being “ill-informed” and “patronizing,” could at least have been honest about another issue: low incomes. 

“People are simply too poor to eat decently,” De Schutter said May 17 at a press conference in Ottawa.

Given that about 45 per cent of Nunavut’s population live on social assistance for all or part of the year, that’s the essence of the problem.

Too many people in Nunavut are too poor to pay. On that front, governments do have some power. They can use the tax system and stronger income supports to put more cash into the pockets of northern residents. They can do better in training and education to help more people increase their earning power. Unfortunately, few elected officials are thinking that way. JB

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