Americas

Isolation and Opportunism: Price Gouging in Rural Canada

After months of nose-to-the-grindstone, no-me-time work obligations, this past weekend I packed my bags and road tripped it to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my beautiful bride-to-be besty, Heather . . . with bridesmaid dress shopping on our agenda for Saturday.

Now, a 5 hour drive (with an extra hour added on thanks to the lovely contribution of people afflicted with snow-driving amnesia going 40mph on the interstate — intimidated by the light sprinkling of snow best described as ‘dandruff’), requires a gas fill-up or two. Little did I know that, despite the gas station located only 10 minutes from Heather’s family home, we were forced to stop at a pump almost two hours away . . . or pay $0.06 more a gallon at the stations where travelers normally become marooned after miles of winding, rural road.

Likewise, as I learned during our foray into the world of Escanaba bridal boutiques, price hikes are not unusual in a town that is three hours from the nearest major shopping center.  Even worse, because sales staff know that they have most of their customers stranded with no better options, customer service is abysmally poor.  When you start your shopping having to toss $200 dollar dresses over the back of a chair until you explicitly ask an audibly-sighing saleswoman to open a dressing room for you, the canary in the coal mine is signaling danger.

Now, I’m not saying these are anything more than mild inconveniences.  But what happens when the opportunistic attitude that underlies them – that customers can, and should, be punished for accidents of geography, extends to the necessities of life?

Image courtesy of CKUT Radio.

Image courtesy of CKUT Radio.

Nunavut, the farthest-north part of Canada, claims a bigger land mass than any other Canadian province or territory (2 million square kilometers), but its population (made up of mostly native Inuit peoples) is smaller than a major university’s (at 34,000 citizens) and its settlements are flung far from any major city center with no highway access.

Because there are public health restrictions in place preventing local country foods (like butchered wild game) from being distributed within the community — especially in public institutions like schools and hospitals — the Northern communities are forced to rely on only one or two corporate food suppliers, whose prices, in the absence of competition and the face of high diesel fuel transport costs, are ridiculously inflated.

$104.99 for a 24-pack of bottled water. $64.99 for a bag of crispy chicken strips. $28.54 for a head of cabbage. $10.25 for a green pepper.

Food subsidies, implemented by the federally-run Nutrition North program introduced in May 2010, have indeed reduced food costs – by 15% — but also has a limited list of ‘qualifying’ products . . . which do not include feminine hygiene items or baby products (like infant formula, which runs to $55 a box).

Image courtesy of The Huffington Post.

Image courtesy of The Huffington Post.

Nutrition North also cut the subsidies for hunting and fishing equipment, key tools for accessing traditional, locally-sourced food.  The poverty levels in Nunavut prevent most from fronting the costs for hunting:

Hunters today travel by snowmobile ($10,000).

Each trip is fueled by gas ($400 per trip).

Catches are brought home in a kamotik made of wood ($1000).

Safety devices like a GPS ($200) and satellite phone ($1000).

Hunting requires a gun and bullets. ($1000).

It seems like an unsolvable problem — a Hydra with a never-ending supply of heads. But the first step is always awareness. I was absolutely floored when I first saw the pictures included in this article . . . scrolling down my tumblr feed, buried amongst the Sherlock shipping and kitten gifs.  All I can do, all any of us can do, is to accept that there will always be global problems we remain ignorant of — no matter how many hours of NPR we listen to.  All we can do is to not be paralyzed, but empowered by this fact of life, and to attempt to educate ourselves and others as we come across stories like this.  Perhaps then, things will begin to change . . . if we change them.

Ann Santori
Blogger and podcaster
Ann Santori is a B.A. graduate in English Literature and Political Science from Carthage College in Kenosha, WI. She was born and (partially) raised in Chicago, IL before moving to the suburbs and therefore igniting her life-long desire to travel far beyond towns where the only thing open past 9pm is the IHOP.

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