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By Pieta Woolley

Shaun Loney’s book, An Army of Problem Solvers, was published this past fall just as one of its core concerns hit the headlines. A report charged that the federal Nutrition North Canada program — which subsidizes perishable food prices in remote parts of the country — has failed to alleviate the high cost of healthy food. For the past decade, Loney’s Aki Energy has partnered with First Nations to rebuild local economies.

On Nutrition North: It’s not working. Diabetes rates are on the rise, and I think that’s fairly indicative that we need to do something different. Most of $65 million that Nutrition North puts into the communities goes into for-profit monopoly retailers that sell mostly unhealthy foods. So we at Aki Energy think support should go to problem solvers such as social enterprises that sell only healthy food and work with the community to increase the availability of local foods.

On pushing past resistance to solutions: I’m extremely optimistic about the future. Our problems are solvable. There are lots of solutions out there to environmental problems, child welfare problems and food insecurity [which are detailed in An Army of Problem Solvers]. We know what the solutions are. The question is, what needs to be done to overcome the hurdles that are in the way of getting to those solutions?

Ryan Smith/ Courtesy of Shaun Loney
Ryan Smith/ Courtesy of Shaun Loney

On potatoes: Here’s a perfect example of how solving a simple bureaucratic problem could transform a local economy: at the Northern store in Garden Hill, Man., you can buy 10 pounds of potatoes for $4. That’s because retailers and suppliers get an additional $8 from Nutrition North. Local farmers, on the other hand, have to sell their 10 pounds of potatoes for the full $12 because they’re ineligible for the subsidy. If local farmers could get that $8 subsidy, then people would buy their potatoes, and farming would become lucrative for those people. But right now we’re competing against government-subsidized monopoly retailers.

On geothermal: In partnership with First Nations, we have converted 350 homes and buildings to geothermal energy in Manitoba. It saves people money on bills, but it’s the opposite of charity. Local people learn how to install and run the community’s equipment, so it’s creating new local energy jobs, instead of importing energy from elsewhere.

On rebuilding local economies: Former moderator Very Rev. Stan McKay grew up at Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba when the economy was collapsing. He talks about the government “taking the Indian out of the economy.” Enough with the focus on social assistance, McKay says. Rebuilding local economies is what reconciliation looks like.

On better political action: We need to understand our own stories. The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie said, “It’s going to take us 100 years to figure out what the hell went on up there [in the North], but it isn’t cool and everybody knows that.” So the first step is to find out what happened up North — and let that adjudicate our response. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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