At forty per cent of the population, Nunavut has the highest proportion of people on social assistance in the country. 

In Iqaluit, Stephen Eekeeluk is one of them.

“I’m surprised the numbers are not more because, locally, I see many of us unemployed and struggling,” Eeleeluk says. “People just get frustrated doing the same routine over and over and not getting any results, and that's just becoming more common.”

Nunavut's Anti-Poverty Secretariat is working to change that. Recently, it commissioned a report, by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy in Ottawa, to investigate ways to reform the income support program. "Poverty and Prosperity in Nunavut" proposes several ideas for immediate and short-term improvements to the income support system.

The report also makes one suggestion for longer-term changes: implementing a guaranteed minimum income in the territory, also known as a “basic income.”

Ed McKenna

Income support in Nunavut has 'actually become a program of first resort,' says Ed McKenna, the director of the Anti-Poverty Secretariat. 'For many people this is the only option they see.' (Grant Linton/CBC)

“Unlike welfare, a Basic Income program would not require applicants and recipients to divest themselves of most of their assets – effectively becoming desperately poor – in order to qualify for income assistance,” the report says.

The idea came up during anti-poverty roundtable discussions held throughout Nunavut, the report notes. 

It was tried successfully in experiments in Manitoba in the 1970s. The idea was also included in a senate report on tackling poverty and has been promoted by Conservative Senator Hugh Segal on the CBC's Sunday Edition (click the link on the top left to hear that conversation) and on the CBC Radio program The 180

The Caledon report suggests spending more time investigating basic income programs in countries such as Norway.

"Together, these income programs – stronger child benefits, minimum wage, earnings supplements and more accessible Employment Insurance – could help prevent and reduce poverty in Nunavut. Welfare would, over time, revert to its original purpose as last-resort temporary assistance," the report says. 

Shorter-term ideas

That would be a substantial change, according to the Anti-Poverty Secretariat's director. 

“It’s actually become a program of first resort,” says Ed McKenna. “For many people this is the only option they see.”

The report suggests giving people more information on what’s out there, and offering better social programming to position people to take advantage of the opportunities.

“Programs like early childhood development, education programs of course, skills training, and economic development programs that support creation or employment opportunities,” McKenna says.

The report also recommends indexing income support payments to the cost of living.

And it suggests an immediate increase to the Territorial Workers’ Supplement and Working Income Tax Benefit; increasing child tax benefits; and expanding the fuel supplement.