Rising food prices in the North have lately garnered attention, as pictures of basic goods with outrageous price tags make the rounds on social media.
Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq angered many when she was seen reading a newspaper in Parliament while the opposition questioned her about residents in her own riding picking through the garbage dump to find food. Meanwhile, Stephen Harper’s Nutrition North program is a failure by every measure. Retailers are subsidized by the federal government, but they must arrange their own shipping. There is nothing to require business owners to keep the prices of staple foods low, and nothing to prevent them from simply pocketing the subsidy and raising prices.
Not long ago another program subsidized the shipping of nutritious food to the North through Canada Post. Through Food Mail, retailers in isolated northern communities sent food through Canada Post at a cost of 80 cents per kilogram. Today retailers pay in the neighbourhood of $13 per kilogram to ship the same products.
Though not perfect, the Food Mail program was a useful way of leveraging existing federal infrastructure to alleviate high food prices. An expanded program could not only keep the price of freight low for retailers, but also allow residents to order bulk food directly with subsidized shipping. This would dramatically reduce the cost of nutritious food in isolated communities.
Food Mail was a commonsense solution to a problem that the Conservative government has only exacerbated. But there is another aspect to this story, one with much deeper ideological roots, about the role of the federal government, its institutions and Crown corporations in connecting the country.
Canada Post has long been a critical part of the country’s infrastructure, connecting people from coast to coast to coast. But the neoliberal model imposed by Stephen Harper clashes with this idea on a fundamental level. The Conservatives would rather give subsidies to business than support public services. There is no fiscal argument to support the destruction of the Food Mail program, and the impact of its loss on northern communities has been devastating.
Food Mail is one example of how Canada Post’s federal infrastructure can be leveraged to deliver services and meet social needs. Canada Post could take advantage of its vast retail network — the largest in the country — to deliver banking and financial services to communities like post offices do in many countries. It could rely on this same infrastructure to become a wireless carrier, as La Poste has done in France. There are no shortages of programs and services that could be offered using the existing infrastructure of this critical Crown corporation.
But this is a view that conflicts with ideological beliefs deeply held by Stephen Harper and his government. They are stripping Canada Post of its services. They are creating a crisis in the organization. And they are quietly preparing an agenda of privatization for the Crown corporation.
There is much about Canada Post that is incompatible with the private sector. Canada Post is built on a model of cross-subsidization. Different services bring in varying amounts of revenue in different parts of the country. While it costs only a buck to mail a letter to Nunavut, the actual cost to deliver that letter is much more. But the profitable parts of the corporation subsidize the unprofitable parts, and this allows the public to expect the same service standards across the country. This very idea, of collectively providing the service that each individual requires, is what the Conservatives find so objectionable.
Any company in the private sector would raise prices for rural areas and slash services in an attempt to get the most financial gain. And the neoliberal model that Stephen Harper takes as gospel would suggest that this is exactly what should be done with the Crown corporation: market reform, privatization and restructuring. But this vision is completely at odds with Canada’s Post purpose.
Canada Post is a piece of federal infrastructure that touches every community, indeed every address in the country. It is Canada’s largest logistics and retail network. The potential for it to deliver new products and services is limitless.
The Food Mail program is only a small example of what could be done, and its resurrection would help northerners with one of life’s most basic needs. But I wouldn’t count on that happening as long as the Conservatives are in office, reading newspapers in Parliament as northerners scavenge for scraps.