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MLAs press minister for income support changes

Elisapee Sheutiapik
“The (Family Services) department is the ‘unflavour’ of the day because we are dealing with people. It is a real challenge ... We have had in eight years six ministers. Imagine trying to make change with those kinds of changes,” says Family Services Minister Elisapee Sheutiapik. She is flanked by Education Minister David Joanasie and Housing Minister Margaret Nakashuk. Trevor Wright/NNSL photo

MLAs recently took turns pressuring Family Services Minister Elisapee Sheutiapik for modifications to the income support program, and she generally indicated that changes will fall to the next territorial government.

Ammituq MLA Joelie Kaernerk fired the opening salvo in the legislative assembly on March 16 by pointing out that, according to Nutrition North, it costs $404 weekly for a family living in Sanirajak to eat a healthy diet and $422 weekly in Iglulik. However, income assistance only provides $335 per week.

“Can the minister explain how this amount is considered to be sufficient to ensure that families are adequately fed?” Kaernerk asked, referring to income support as a “paternalistic practice” and adding that he's heard concerns from income support workers who want to speak out “as they too are feeling human beings.”

Some adaptations started

Sheutiapik said there have been some adaptations to income support started by the last government and further changes have been made by the current one, such as the creation of the “food basket to better reflect the cost of living in Nunavut.” The amount provided to single individuals has risen and there's no longer a requirement to have forms signed when income support clients are actively looking for work, she added.

Kaernerk then called upon the government to raise the amount that income support recipients can receive as gifts from family members or other individuals without being penalized – currently capped at $40 per month. He received a round of applause from his colleagues for that recommendation.

Sheutiapik replied, “There are many items within the income assistance regulations that require updating. This work is ongoing, the income assistance reform. The changes are not minor and will be in the queue for the other legislative changes for the next government.”

Kaernerk, who noted that there were more than 1,500 income recipients in the two communities that he represents in 2019, said it's “sad” that changes must wait and pointed out that there are “hardly any jobs” in Sanirajak and Iglulik.

“Therefore, when it comes to the last resort, they go for income assistance. Once they are declined, their hope is declined; they are hopeless,” he said.

Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet MLA Cathy Towtongie revisited the issue of bingo winnings above $40 resulting in deductions to aid for income support clients, a topic she raised in the legislative assembly years ago. People tend to use their bingo windfall to buy more food, snowmobiles or furniture, Towtongie said.

Issue should be 'fast-tracked'

“I don’t think as a government we should be constantly treating residents as irresponsible residents as we know that most Inuit today, at this time, are facing hardships in trying to maintain stability,” she said, adding that the issue should be “fast-tracked.”

Sheutiapik responded that bingo winnings is not among the priority items within income support reforms because it only affects “a small portion” of clients.

Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone then reiterated Kaernerk's observations and said “it is very frustrating ... when a clear response is not given.”

He asked the minister if income support clients lose benefits the next month when they receive electronic transfers of money from family members to help them purchase food.

Sheutiapik didn't answer the question.

Instead, she said, “The department is the ‘unflavour’ of the day because we are dealing with people. It is a real challenge ... We have had in eight years six ministers. Imagine trying to make change with those kinds of changes.”

Arreak Lightstone urged the minister to amend the regulations to allow for one-time monetary transfers “within a reasonable limit that would not penalize” income support clients.

Sheutiapik embraced the suggestion.

“I thank you. I thank you because you provided a potential solution,” she said. “It is easy to ask a question. It is another to solve it, so I really thank you for your suggestion, it makes sense. So I will certainly be working with my department on that suggestion.”

John Main, MLA for Arviat North-Whale Cove, asked Sheutiapik for an update on the GN's examination of a guaranteed basic income, an approach that he has repeatedly advocated.

The minister said her department was in the process of hiring a consultant to undertake that research.