Voices North

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With a background in community access media and media training, George Lessard has worked in print, broadcast radio and television and in educational media. He considers himself an artist in electronic and digital media. Born and brought up in Montreal, in Canada, his work has taken him to Toronto, Vancouver, Banff and Calgary; Inuvik, Fort Smith and Yellowknife NWT (where he currently lives); Salluit, Nunavik (Arctic Quebec) and Arviat, Nunavut. He's been posted internationally to Beijing, China; Nassau, the Bahamas; La Paz, Bolivia; Butare, Rwanda; Chelyabinsk, Russia and Berhampur, Odisha, India. These days in Yellowknife, he's producing live webcasts and YouTube videos of community events and mentoring young photographers around the NWT.

Poverty and social services in the NWT on the eve of devolution

| March 8, 2013
Poverty and social services in the NWT on the eve of devolution

A citizen's right to food and housing in the NWT.

Two events on the poverty front happened in the Northwest Territories this week. We had a coroner's inquest in the shooting death of Karen Lander by the RCMP last year and the Report of the Auditor General of Canada on the Northwest Territories Income Security Programs—Department of Education, Culture and Employment was tabled in the NWT Legislative  Assembly.

 I sat through all eight days of the inquest.

 Around this time last year, Karen Lander was killed, "…A Yellowknife Coroner's jury says Karen Lander’s cause of death is undetermined. The inquest stems from a March 2012 standoff when three RCMP officers shot Lander four times after she came out of a Yellowknife home and pointed a rifle at police…." -- CBC North  

Karen Lander had a history of depression and alcohol abuse, she died because her right to have her medical, housing, nutritional and social needs recognized, respected & accommodated by the NWT's "social care" did not happen. 

Just like the four Yellowknife Housing special needs tenants at the Inukshuk Co-op were not consulted nor were there special medical identified and considered so they could be properly accommodated in the new lodgings Yellowknife Housing is forcing them to move into. 

Then there are Tukoyaktuk's recipients of Income Assistance vouchers rather than cash who are now forced to buy their supplies in government approved stores because the hamlet council complained to someone that the recipients were blowing their money on gambling and booze …. This is discrimination based on a medical condition. 

Karen Lander was discriminated against when she became single because her kids were taken away and our social services cut her rent down to a Yellowknife maximum of $900 down from the full market value rent they were paying for rent when she was a mother and she lost her housing…

Just like every single person on Income Assistance in the NWT is discriminated against when there is a non-market limit placed on their rent unlike the rent for a parent with dependant(s) or couples. 

As a single person, the human rights of Karen Lander were stepped on when our social services created a barrier to her renting a home, and because of her lack of access to financial resources, her security of the person was also put in jeopardy as she was now forced into homelessness.

Our NWT Human Rights Act says that one cannot discriminate based on family status, marital status and social condition, but that's just what social services did to Karen Lander.

All because her family status changed. Family status includes whether you are a parent or not, and that's just one of the things that happened to Karen Lander because her family status changed. She didn't choose to give up her kids… but was forced to… and to insult to injury, they they forced her into housing not fit for her kids so even if she beat her addiction they made it even harder to get her kids back.

She had medical and addiction problems, but her right to live in a way to facilitate her recovery was taken away from her because no one considered their actions on her social condition: This is defined in the Act as, “inclusion, other than on a temporary basis, in a socially identifiable group that suffers from social or economic disadvantage resulting from poverty, source of income, illiteracy, level of education or any other similar circumstance.”

The John Howard Society of the NWT's Lydia Bardak, a social justice worker, said a mental health specialist could help in crisis situations such as this. 

A mental health specialist may have known that Karen Lander had a right to and was under (as tenuous as it was)  medical care and had the right to be properly treated for her additions and health issues…

Our health and social services could or would not seem to have been able to do that for Karen Lander just like the four Yellowknife Housing special needs tenants at the Inukshuk Co-op were not consulted nor were there special medical identified and considered so they could be accommodated in the new lodging they are being forced to move into. 

In fact by failing to properly act on information they already possessed, our health and social services seem to have only added to the social conditions that directly contributed to Karen Lander's death… and in the case of the Inukshuk Co-Op Four… weeks of non-medically recommended stress… many thousands of dollars of added cost when the all the required accommodations to meet the tenants special medical and treatment needs required by their forced move.

In my opinion Karen Lander's death, the treatment of the Inukshuk Co-Op Four show that there is systemic disregard for important human rights in the NWT's social services departments.

Now the GNWT and our local NGOs are working on an NWT Anti-Poverty Strategy. I challenge them to make certain it is up to meeting human rights standards... then need to remember how the current social services system treated Karen Lander, the Inukshuk Co-Op Four, every single person who cannot find a place to live, the Tuk recipients of Income Assistance vouchers and all the others in the territory who's right to have their medical, housing, nutritional and social needs taken care of by their government is under threat by the lack of adherence to international human rights standards that Canada has pledged itself to support around the world.

The press reports that final version is due out March 31 and MLA Bromley wants to know if there are plans for a peer review of the strategy before it starts being implemented across the NWT.

Personally, I'd like to see a human rights review before it starts being implemented across the NWT.

2013 March Report of the Auditor General of Canada on the Northwest Territories Income Security Programs—Department of Education, Culture and Employment

"…Rates of homelessness, crime, and addiction in the Northwest Territories are among the highest in the country and may put an individual’s employability, mental health, personal financial stability, and family well-being at risk. …"

"...We found that key program requirements were not met for 38 of the 65 income security files we reviewed across the four programs...."

"....The majority of Income Assistance files were not administered in compliance with program requirements...."

"…Income Assistance program. We found that 18 of 20 Income Assistance files we reviewed (90 percent) did not meet one or more key program requirements…."

"…inconsistencies mean clients received different income security benefits depending on which client service officer was processing their file…."

"…In summary. Our review of files for the four income security programs found significant issues with delivery of these programs in accordance with key requirements…"

Conclusion

79. We found that the Department of Education, Culture and Employment did not deliver its income security programs according to key elements of applicable legislation and policies. It has not assessed whether its income security programs are meeting the objective of providing adequate financial support, in combination with supports and services, to help people achieve self-reliance.

80. We found that, while the Department does provide reasonable access to its income security programs, processes to support program delivery are weak in some areas, which contributes to the Department’s lack of success in administering these programs according to requirements. Weaknesses include unclear program guidance in some areas, inconsistent monitoring of program delivery in regional and community service centres, insufficient training for front- line staff, and failure to consistently follow prescribed processes for program delivery....."

2013 March Report of the Auditor General of Canada
Northwest Territories Income Security Programs—Department of Education, Culture and Employment
PDF Version

12/03/2013

This just came to my attention today...

"Income Outcome" A very moving poem about trying to get income assistance in the NWT By Miranda Currie January 2012
NWT MLA Bob Bromley read this poem in the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

MR. BROMLEY in NWT's Hansard of March 12, 2013
"…I’d like to turn to the main focus of my comments today, and I’d like to begin by acknowledging again, Ms. Miranda Currie, who’s in the gallery today. Thanks for coming out, Miranda. I’d like to read a poem that Ms. Currie has written to describe her experiences in seeking disability income support, and it’s obviously germane because of the Auditor General’s focus, and I know the Minister is focusing on this situation right now as well. Once again, thanks to Miranda for graciously sharing her personal story through the art of this poetry.
But, first, a little bit of background. Ms. Currie suffered a very serious head injury in an accident in November 2011. She later suffered multiple injuries again, head injuries, as a result of the ill effects of her original injury. To this day, she is continuing to strive to regain her health. She’s a very spunky person and I know she will achieve that. However, she has been unable to carry on her daily life in a normal way. She has been in and out of hospitals and has received extensive neurological treatment since then, and she does suffer impairment of her speech and many motor skills. Miranda was self- employed before the accident, and she must now rely on public income support to meet her basic subsistence needs. She lives very modestly. Her ordeal with income security has hardly been a positive contribution in her effort to regain her health, and that’s the topic today.
Just a few of the difficulties that she has experienced in trying to access income assistance include:
• A case worker refusal to provide accommodation assistance based on the subjective judgement that she lives in substandard housing.
• Receipts to document her rental, electrical and fuel costs were obtained with great physical difficulties and expense and visiting offices to obtain stamped and certified copies.
• Income assistance staff say they have lost the receipts she has supplied to their offices. This has happened four times. Imagine if you were saddled with this situation.
• Despite severe mobility problems and risk of re-injury, she has repeatedly been told she must come to the income assistance office for interviews, which could easily be conducted over the phone.
• She has been refused reimbursement of costs for loans received from friends in the interim to pay her fuel, power and living costs, and given the explanation that those are considered gifts. Nice of them to make that decision on behalf of her friends.
• Treatment that lacks compassion and sensitivity to the realities of her situation, again, not a single instance, such as a caseworker hanging up on her after saying I’ll see you tomorrow when Ms. Currie has said she is physically unable to attend appointments due to the effects of her injuries.
• And, finally, a late payment of support have at times left her huddled in her bed to stay warm, unable to pay oil bills and living in a home well below zero. We know what this winter has been like.
That’s enough background. Her words really do speak for themselves, and once again, I want to express my appreciation to Miranda Currie for her willingness to share this very personal story…"
From -
http://www.assembly.gov.nt.ca/_live/documents/content/hn130312.pdf

And thenCBC's As It Happens played excerpts of Mr Bromley's reading of the poem on it's "For the Record" segment: Northwest Territories Leg Poem (its the second item, after the Shanghai Dead Pigs)


Also.. earlier this week I was interviewed on CBC North Radio's Trailbreaker morning show on income assistance in the NWT and the Auditor General's Report.  Here is a copy of the audio file I recorded when it was broadcast ths past Monday.

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