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Once a month, Ottawa resident Bellanov Macaen wires about $100 to his dad Bernold, a bookseller in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Gang violence is rampant there, making it nearly impossible for Bernold to commute to and open his bookstore for fear of being extorted, kidnapped or murdered. Without the money sent by his sons — Macaen in Canada and another son in France — surviving would be nearly impossible.

But for Macaen, sustaining that lifeline is becoming increasingly difficult. In recent months, Canadian food prices in June have soared 8.8 per cent compared to June last year, but his family’s grocery bills have almost doubled to about $700 a month from their $400 pre-pandemic average. Healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, rice and some meat — his preferred diet — are particularly pricey.

Meanwhile, food prices in Haiti have skyrocketed by a staggering 26 per cent this year. The country relies heavily on imported grains, which have become more expensive due to the war in Ukraine and the North American droughts last year. Violence has also forced up prices, with gangs extorting a tax on trucks bringing food into the country.

The last time Macaen was in Haiti, in 2018, he paid about $3 to feed three people a meal of spaghetti. Now, he says it would cost twice that to pay for the same meal. The soaring food prices in both countries have forced Macaen to strike a "difficult" balance between feeding his father and feeding himself.

"Considering what my dad did for me and the sacrifices that man made" — Macean paused — "it's not ideal. I wouldn't sign up for it, but life happens sometimes."

Macaen shares his challenge with more than five million Canadian residents, temporary foreign workers and international students sending money to support relatives abroad. Many are essential workers in low-wage jobs — farm workers, hotel caretakers or fast food employees — whose relatively small incomes leave them particularly exposed to the impacts of inflation and rising food prices.

Nearly 15 per cent of Canadian residents send remittances abroad each year, according to the Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion. About two-thirds of this cash — $18.3 billion in 2018 — went to middle-income countries like China, India, Mexico and Jamaica, with the remainder split between low-income countries and wealthy nations. This influx accounts for over a quarter of the GDP in some lower-income countries.

For most remitters, sending money to family abroad is an "obligation," not a choice, said Ilhan Saydna, community engagement co-ordinator for Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank. Depending on the country, local wages might not be high enough to cover the cost of living, or high unemployment makes it hard to find work. In countries with lots of gang violence, migrant workers may also need to pay extortion fees to keep their relatives safe.

According to Statistics Canada, remitters sent an average of $2,855 to relatives abroad in 2018. It's a lot of money to send home — even before the recent inflation, many remitters relied on several jobs and reduced their costs in Canada to support family members outside the country. Add in higher food prices in Canada and beyond, and some of these workers are struggling to eat.

Nearly 15 per cent of Canadian residents send money to relatives abroad each year. Climbing food prices are making it harder to send enough home.

The food bank has become a "very popular place" in recent months, Saydna said. Her organization received over 170,000 visits this past July, up from just 60,000 in July 2021. She doesn't track how many of these people send remittances abroad due to concerns donors would disapprove and cut off funding to the food bank.

Community groups further west have also been busier than usual. Jun Carayacun has worked at the Banff Fairmont Hotel since coming to Canada in 2013. He is the force behind the Filipino Organization in the Rocky Mountains, a Banff-based community group. Since 2021, the organization has delivered boxes filled with rice, sardines, Filipino vegetables and other items to Filipinos struggling to afford food in the region.

Byron Cruz, an outreach worker for the Vancouver-based migrant workers organization Sanctuary Health, said a similar situation is playing out in the Lower Mainland. The high cost of necessities is forcing some refugees, undocumented migrants and temporary farm workers to rely on his organization for food so they can continue sending money home to support their families or protect them from violence. The group has seen demand surge in recent years due to the pandemic and the higher price of food.

Back in Ottawa, Macaen is hoping Canadian food prices start to stabilize. He is due to start a university program this fall, meaning he won't be able to send his father as much money as before. He can only hope his family will stay safe.

"My worst nightmare is waking up and receiving a call," he said.

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I have lots of difficulty with this issue. By obtaining some of their food from food banks, these recent Canadians are depriving other Canadians the food support that they need, support provided by other generous citizens (probably not the richest among us). The money sent abroad rather than spent locally is not helping our economy to turn around: it is an indirect drain on the economy that generated the support in the first place. This is a bad practice.

On the other hand, poor people in other countries need help, and the remitted money helps the economy of their country to turn around and generate wealth there.

Canada is a relatively generous (though selective) foreign aid donor. But how much of our aid reaches the people in need after their leaders have taken their share?

In the end, all people should support themselves, and the best way to achieve this situation is through education of the younger generation. So, rather that charging higher fees for foreign students, we should (selectively) subsidize their education fees and encourage them to return to their country to contribute there.