Liard First Nation divided over income support

A private company will take over the income support program for the Liard First Nation, says the federal government.

First Nation handed responsibility for program back to federal government last week

Chief Liard McMillan of the Liard First Nation calls income support "a broken program" the First Nation isn't interested in administering. (CBC)

A private company is set to take over a program in the Liard First Nation that distributes monthly cheques to those without income, says the federal government.  

Liard McMillan, Chief of the Liard First Nation, says he expects the company is going to have a difficult time. 

"We're seeing about 200-300 clients a month. It's probably going to take some time for the federal government to realize that it's not so easy to administer this program," he said.

The First Nation receives $146,000 a year to administer Income Support from its band office. McMillan says this is not enough.

He says there is immense demand for Income Support which residents call social assistance or "SA." 

This month, swamped with a backlog of paperwork and "extremely behind" on the administration of cheques, the First Nation handed responsibility for the program back to the federal government.

Frank Vullings, who is the First Nation's director of finances, agrees with the decision. 

The Liard First Nation's financial director, Frank Vullings, says the First Nation challenges anyone to run the program for $146,000 a year. (CBC)

"What we're saying to the federal government is, if you think you can deliver this program for the money that you pay us to deliver the program — then go ahead," he said. 

Abusive clients at band office

Vullings said the First Nation has often found itself receiving complaints and abuse from its members.

He describes the First Nation workers as on the front line, while residents confront the band about the federal payments which are set by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

"There have been a lot of upset people. Harsh words in the band office. We had to call the police to get people removed. And it make it really hard for the government to function with that kind of stress going on," he said.

Roy Stewart, one of about 300 Liard First Nation residents on income support, agrees the situation has been tense. He describes people yelling at the office of the First Nation in Watson Lake.

"People want their cheques on time because they need to pay their bills, their gas and their electricity too. They hardly got no fuel, their kids are getting hungry," he said.

Linda Lutz is another resident. She said that people worry about making ends meet and often lash out.

"We're frustrated," she said.

According to the First Nation, demands for income support are increasing. The First Nation says almost 300 people rely on the program as their only source of income.

People living in Liard First Nation housing do not pay rent but depend on the income assistance to pay for fuel, electricity and household expenses such as groceries and clothing.

According to the federal government, the program represents about $2.2 million a year, which roughly equates to $7,000 per person. Each person must apply for funding individually and demonstrate their needs for the government to decide the amount of aid they receive. 

Some call for election

The Liard First Nation is set to hold an election next month. Some community members are campaigning against the Chief and Council and say they are abdicating their responsibilities. 

Debbie Donnessy is a community member who says the delay has hurt the poorest residents of the Liard First Nation. (CBC)

Residents also say the root issue is a lack of jobs in the community, and say people are upset because they are fighting for a limited amount of work and money.

Debbie Donnessy, who opposes the current Chief and Council, says the First Nation should have further consulted with members before the decision.

"We want an emergency meeting, and we want [Chief McMillan] to step down," said Debbie Donnessy. "The poorest of the poor are suffering. They're caught in the crossfire," she said.

Payments will continue, says AANDC

According to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, service in the community will hardly skip a beat. 

It says Income Assistance services for eligible First Nation clients will be available in Watson Lake starting at 10 a.m. on Oct. 5.

The private company will be tasked with assisting residents to receive their monthly cheques and making sure the program meets federal requirements.

Vullings expects the company will find it difficult to meet what he calls strict federal requirements.

For example, applicants must provide banking information to avoid duplication and fraud.

"They want bank statements, and many of our clients don't have bank accounts," he said. 


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