Feds dismiss UN envoy's findings on hunger, poor diets
Published Wednesday, May 16, 2012 9:43PM EDT
Federal ministers are scoffing at the findings of a United Nations right-to-food envoy who blasted Canada for tolerating inequality and lack of access to nutritious diets among its poor and First Nation citizens.
Olivier De Schutter, whose damning report is based on an 11-day visit to Canada, says the country's rate of food insecurity is "unacceptable" and called on the federal government 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 and non-aboriginal peoples," De Schutter told reporters in Ottawa Wednesday.
"Canada has long been seen as a land of plenty. Yet today one in 10 families with a child under six is unable to meet their daily food needs," he said, noting that "people are simply too poor to eat decently."
De Schutter said 800,000 Canadian households are "food insecure" because social assistance benefits and minimum wages have not kept up with the rising costs of basic necessities, such as food and housing.
"Food banks that depend on charity are not a solution: they are a symptom of failing social safety nets that the government must address," he said.
"Here I have to say my concerns are extremely severe and I don't see why I should mince my words."
But Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said De Schutter is simply an "ill-informed" and "patronizing" academic who is "studying us from afar."
De Schutter made recommendations about the diets of Canada's First Nations without ever setting foot in the North, said Aglukkaq, a Nunavut MP.
"I found it insulting as an aboriginal person," she told CTV's Power Play Wednesday.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney also lashed out at De Schutter, suggesting the envoy wasted both his time and the UN's resources by spending 11 days here.
"It would be our hope that the contributions we make to the United Nations are used to help starving people in developing countries, not to give lectures to wealthy and developed countries like Canada and I think this is a discredit to the United Nations," Kenney said, noting that Canada sends billions of dollars in food aid to the developing world each year.
When asked why no Conservative cabinet ministers met with De Schutter during his trip, Kenney responded that the trip was nothing more than a "political mission" and said the UN was out of line by investigating Canada.
"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," Kenney said, mistakenly conflating the work of the WFP with that of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
But De Schutter told reporters that every country should be willing to acknowledge gaps in their food distribution problems.
He said many Canadians in inner-city neighbourhoods and remote aboriginal communities are living in poverty and don't enjoy the food security that Canada advocates elsewhere in the world.
Aglukkaq, however, said that food security issues in northern aboriginal communities stem from "fighting environmentalists that try to put a stop to our way of life," referring to protests against seal and polar bear hunts, as well as fishing.
Aglukkaq said she "tried to educate" De Schutter about the Inuit way of life and traditional food-gathering practices.
"I don't think he was listening," she said.
De Schutter also noted that more than one in four Canadian adults is obese.
"This is also a result of poverty: adequate diets have become too expensive for poor Canadians, and it is precisely these people who have to pay the most when they live in food deserts and depend on convenience stores that charge higher prices than the main retailers," he said.
This was De Schutter's first visit to a developed nation. He will now take these preliminary findings of his mission and prepare a formal report that he will ultimately present to the UN Human Rights Council.
Diana Bronson, of Food Secure Canada, said the federal government is refusing to acknowledge a very real problem in Canada.
"The problem of hunger in Canada is perhaps not on our front page news but there are 2 million people in this country who are food insecure and we have almost a million people who use food banks on a monthly basis. So we are indeed in a crisis and the terrible thing is we have no policy in place to deal with it," Bronson told CTV News Channel.