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Nunavut group calls for one-day grocery boycott

Feeding My Family asks supporters to boycott North West Company

As controversy spikes over high food prices in Canada’s North, and Ottawa hints at action, a citizens group plans to protest against one of the region’s biggest grocery chains.

Feeding My Family, a Nunavut group demanding food prices come down, is calling for a one-day boycott of North West Company stores this Saturday.

Winnipeg-based North West operates 121 Northern bannered stores and 7 North Marts across rural and northern parts of Canada. It also operates Giant Tiger stores in the Prairies.

Feeding My Family’s Leelee Papatsie, the boycott’s organizer, has made news in the past for pickets at supermarkets in the Far North, where prices on grocery staples can run into double-digit figures.

Feeding My Family’s Facebook page has 23,000 members. Some have posted photos of high-priced foods on store shelves, including a head of cabbage for $28.54 and a 24-pack of bottled water for $104.99.

Rather than picket at stores this time around, Papatsie told Canadian Grocer that she wants to allow people to “silently” protest by skipping the chain altogether.

Papatsie said she’s targeting North West because the company has more stores throughout the North, so the chances of the boycott having an impact are much greater. Other major northern food retailers include Arctic Co-operatives, which Papatsie is not boycotting.

It’s not clear how much support there is for Saturday’s boycott. One organization backing it so far is the Yukon Employees Union, which represents civil servants in that territory. The union has asked its members to avoid North West stores this Saturday.

“If each one of you refuses to shop at any of the stores you will be helping us beat the high cost of food in the North,” the union wrote on the website

A spokesperson for North West, Derek Reimer, doesn’t think a boycott is a good idea, or that his company should be blamed for ongoing food security issues in the North.

“While some are upset about the high cost of living and choosing to use our company as a means to highlight their concerns, we believe the majority of our customers see our contributions to the local economy and value these services, and we are grateful for their support,” Reimer, North West’s director of business development, told Canadian Grocer.

Reimer added that his company is a major employer of First Nation and Inuit people and that it backs many breakfast programs in towns where its stores are located.

customers also recognize that we are committed to the North and investing in the communities where we operate,” he said.

Talk of a boycott comes as Ottawa says it will take a closer look at the high cost of food in the North.

Earlier this week the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development posted a notice asking for a new way to provide northerners with a federal food subsidy.

The current subsidy, Nutrition North (which replaced the old Food Mail program in 2011) is intended to help defray the cost of nutritious food in the North by providing retailers with a subsidy that they are supposed to pass on by cutting food costs for consumers.

But the $60-million annual food subsidy–to which the government recently added another $11.3 million for the program’s 2014-15 budget and a five per cent annual escalator in future years–has been under scrutiny ever since auditor general Michael Ferguson’s fall report in November.

The audit revealed that Aboriginal Affairs is largely in the dark about whether Nutrition North actually does anything for the people who need it the most. That’s partly because the department has not required merchants to report their profit margins, which over time would indicate whether the full subsidy is being passed on to consumers.

In response to the auditor general’s report, North West Company said that under Nutrition North it had passed on to customers $31.7 million in 2013.

“Independent audit of North West’s internal process has confirmed that every dollar of subsidies has been passed along to customers,” the Winnipeg-based company said at the time.

North West said it had tracked 4,000 subsidized items since the launch of Nutrition North in April 2011 and found that prices dropped an average of eight per cent.

The company added that at Nutrition North-eligible North West stores, located in 67 communities, the volume of healthy food sold had gone up: 33 per cent for dairy, 26 per cent for meat, and 22 per cent for produce.

Papatsie, meanwhile, said she doesn’t necessarily expect prices to change as a result of Saturday’s boycott. “It’s more about standing up to a corporation and showing that we can come together when we disagree with how we’re being treated.”

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