What do the people need? Money.
In hindsight, the spectacular growth of the Nunavut-based Feeding My Family Facebook group and its associated food-price protests should surprise no one.
The only surprise is that such protests took so long to develop. Large numbers of Nunavummiut have struggled for years against the highest cost of living in Canada.
But except for the fortunate few who enjoy high-paying government and quasi-government jobs, too many Nunavummiut engage in this struggle armed with the lowest possible cash incomes.
Yes, the Nunavut land claims agreement and the Nunavut territorial government have succeeded in creating a secure space within which Inuit language and culture can enjoy protection and nourishment.
But on just about every other economic and social issue that matters to regular people, the Nunavut project continues to fail. One of the symptoms of this failure is the leadership’s continued rejection of reality and continued acceptance of utopian fantasy.
Perhaps — and on this we can only speculate — this explains why so few can see the obvious: large numbers of individual Nunavummiut need more money.
In 2009, the median annual income for individual tax-filers in Pond Inlet, as reported by Statistics Canada, stood at only $20,790. In Clyde River, StatsCan reported $21,200. In Arctic Bay, $21,520. In Sanikiluaq, $17,000. And so on. In only three Nunavut communities did individual tax-filers in 2009 earn median incomes greater than $30,000 a year: Iqaluit, $57,160; Rankin Inlet, $33,740; and Resolute Bay, $35,250.
Contrary to the wishes of Nunavut’s food price protestors, there’s next to nothing that government — beyond small-scale subsidy programs like Nutrition North Canada — can do to reduce food prices. No government can or should control prices. And due to the drought this summer that’s destroying crops over much of North America, it’s likely that by 2013, food prices will rise everywhere anyway.
But at the same time, there’s much that governments can do to put more money into the pockets of northern Canadians.
One big tool is the income tax system, a policy area that mostly falls under the control of the federal government.
In March 2008, in response to a big northern lobby, Jim Flaherty, the federal finance minister, increased the value of the northern residents tax deduction by about 10 per cent. This allows many northern wage earners to keep more of their wages than before.
But it’s not nearly enough. Given the extent of the territory’s discontent and the objective evidence of malnutrition and hunger in Nunavut and elsewhere in northern Canada, the federal government should consider the introduction of a big, bold income support program that uses the tax system to put more money into the hands of the poor.
The northern residents deduction, for example, was designed at a time when Revenue Canada still assumed nearly all wage earners in the North were non-aboriginal transients who required an incentive to leave the South for work in remote communities.
And despite the modest improvements of 2008, it’s still structured in line with that assumption. But most Nunavut wage earners are now lifelong residents, not transients, and they live in the North because it’s home.
The federal government should consider scrapping the out-dated northern residents deduction and replacing it with a tax credit — a fixed amount of cash that is subtracted, not from taxable income, but from income tax payable.
Another device, known as a “negative income tax,” might work too. Under such a scheme, tax-filers who report incomes under a certain level would get a payment that tops up their income to a certain guaranteed level — ideally, a defined poverty threshold.
This, in effect, would create a guaranteed annual income for all northern residents.
This brings us to the Government of Nunavut’s well-intentioned Makimaniq poverty reduction strategy.
That plan, unveiled this past February, contains four big flaws. One, it contains no measurable goals or objectives. For the GN bureaucrats, this is convenient, because without stated goals, Makimaniq can never be evaluated. Two, it provides not even a rough definition of poverty. How can anyone know if “poverty” has been reduced if no one can state what it is?
Third, there’s little sign that anyone involved in the Makimaniq project even looked at the large body of statistical data that reveals the obvious: too many people in Nunavut don’t earn enough money.
Fourth, the plan proposes nothing concrete on education and training and fails to acknowledge that, despite the best of intentions, the entire education system is failing to lift many Nunavummiut out of poverty.
So despite its bloated jargon, the GN’s anti-poverty strategy remains an incomplete exercise. That’s unfortunate. Better fact-gathering would have led to better ideas.
Having said that, some its measures, such as the creation of the Nunavut Food Security Coalition, could turn out to be useful. Its recent report on the availability of country food, for example, revealed how little Nunavut knows about how much country is produced and how much could be produced. That may not sound like much, but learning what you don’t know is always a good first step towards the acquisition of real knowledge
One thing’s clear, however. This summer’s protest events show that old notions and worn-out programs aren’t enough.
To fix Nunavut’s income deficiencies, governments need big new ideas. JB