Rising food and gas prices a big concern for northern Manitoba First Nations already feeling the pinch

First Nations communities in northern Manitoba already pay high prices for fuel and groceries, and many are worried about the impact rising costs will have on struggling families.

“Prices are extremely ridiculous,” said Tanya Highway, a mother of three.

Highway is Cree and a member of Barren Lands First Nation in Brochet, about 940 kilometers north of Winnipeg. The remote community of about 300 does not have a year-round road connection; it’s accessible by plane, by boat in summer and by winter road usually from January to March.

It’s one of 121 northern and isolated communities eligible for the federal Nutrition North Canada program, which is a subsidy applied against the total cost of items such as fruit and vegetables, milk, meat, bread, and some non-food items such as diapers and menstrual products, shipped by air, ice road, sealift or barge.

Highway said she does her best to avoid shopping at the one grocery store in the community because of the high prices and limited selection.

Tanya Highway is a mother of three who lives in Brochet. The bag of groceries she paid for last week cost $168.97. A price comparison with similar items came to $91.58 before tax in Winnipeg. (Jody Cook)

She said she has noticed prices climb every year and even with subsidies, she said fruits and vegetables are often unaffordable.

“They’re so expensive,” said Highway.

“And then we’ve got all the junk food like chips and drinks and stuff like that … they sell them for cheap and because they sell them for cheap, everybody goes for that.”

Brochet is about 530 kilometers by road from Thompson, when the winter road is open. Highway said residents will share rides to split the cost of traveling to Thompson to shop. Even though it takes nine hours to drive there one way, on top of hotel costs, she said the wider item selection and pricing is worth the trek.

“Our people take that opportunity to leave whenever we can, just to go and buy our food,” said Highway.

Barren Lands Chief Trina Halkett said they have been using COVID-19 relief funds from Indigenous Services Canada to help pay for food hampers.

Barren Lands First Nation Chief Trina Halkett has been using COVID-19 relief funds to pay for food hampers for community members. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

The last round of hampers were sent out at the beginning of February, and it cost the First Nation over $30,000 to charter a plane to fly $60,000 worth of groceries from Winnipeg.

Halkett said they plan on making another large order of groceries for community hampers this month, but hope to get it to the community by truck on the winter road.

Tadoule Lake turns to traditional foods

Members of the Sayisi Dene First Nation at Tadoule Lake, Man., are relying on traditional foods like caribou and fish to offset the cost of living.

Tadoule Lake is 1,000 kilometers north of Winnipeg as the crow flies and about 700 kilometers by road from Thompson, when the winter road is open. Otherwise, it’s a fly-in community.

Ernesto Bussidor, a former chief, said the community has been blessed to have a healthy caribou population this year, although rising gas prices and the frigid winter weather has made it challenging for hunters.

Even with the high cost of fuel in northern Manitoba, people in places like Tadoule Lake will still travel over 13 hours to Thompson, Man., to stock up on groceries. (CBC)

“We’re very fortunate we have fish in the lake and caribou in the hills, so it’s been subsidizing the community,” said Bussidor.

He said the community ran out of gas in January and had to get fuel flown in to tide them over until the winter road opened.

“The regular prices are not much lower for the winter road-delivered gas,” he said.

“So, there’s no breaks anywhere on fuel up in this country.”

Bussidor said people in the community were paying $3.10 a liter for gas at the beginning of March.

Thanks to a trust fund that was established as part of the community’s relocation settlement in 2016, there is a subsidy at the community grocery store, in addition to the Nutrition North subsidy, for foods like vegetables and baby formula.

However, Chief Evan Yassie said he gets calls “every other day” from families who are barely getting by.

“Young families are coming to us as leaders for the community and saying, ‘I’m running out of grub,’ ‘My baby needs milk,’ ‘My baby needs Pampers’ or ‘My child needs food,'” said Yassie.

Evan Yassie, chief of Sayisi Dene First Nation, says some people order groceries shipped to the community and some people travel to cities like Thompson to shop. ‘We’re not winning in either situation because of the high cost of living of a remote community in the North,’ says Yassie. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Yassie said the money that people in Tadoule Lake are living on is not enough for the cost of living in the North.

He said even with subsidies from the community’s trust, as well as the Nutrition North Canada subsidy, people in Tadoule Lake are paying double the price for groceries versus what people would pay in the south.

He said an all-year road or a negotiation of funding options would help to solve their food security issues.

Indigenous Services Canada monitoring situation

Garrison Settee, the grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), a political advocacy group that represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba, said he is concerned about the high cost of food in the North.

MKO recently opened a food bank in Thompson due to increased demand for assistance during the pandemic. Settee said in an emailed statement that MKO will be reaching out to its member First Nations on how the cost of living is impacting individuals and families.

MKO will lobby both levels of government to increase investments in areas such as highway maintenance, winter road construction, airport maintenance, and partnerships with service companies and industries, the statement said.

At a news conference Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said the department is monitoring the rising cost of food and fuel and working toward solutions.

“We want to make sure that no matter what happens in terms of cost of living that there is support for First Nations communities who obviously bear the brunt of those higher costs in a much more profound way,” said Hajdu.

In an emailed statement, ISC said Budget 2021 included a three-year investment of $163.4 million to work with Indigenous partners to address food insecurity. That is to include enhancements to the Nutrtition North subsidy, as well as an expansion to the Harvesters Support Grant program which helps fund hunting activities.

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