Single grandmother cries foul after Nunavut government cuts family's food allowance

Lucy Kittosuk says she went hungry in December because the government of Nunavut cut down her family's food allowance.

'I have been crying uncontrollably,’ says Lucy Kittosuk

Lucy Kittosuk, right, says she went hungry because the government slashed part of her family's income support. She is pictured with her daughter, Theresa Annie Qittosuk, centre, and her granddaughter. (Submitted by Lucy Kittosuk)

A single grandmother in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, says she barely ate in December after the government of Nunavut slashed her daughter's income assistance.

For two months, the family's food allowance was cut down because of poor school attendance — which she says was the result of health issues.

"It was pretty hard in December, how [we] were gonna survive," said Lucy Kittosuk, 46, through sniffles and sighs.

"I barely ate. I ate once a day, as long as my granddaughter eats, or daughter."

Kittosuk said her 23-year-old daughter, Theresa Annie Qittosuk, is attending high school to finish up her diploma as a prerequisite to receiving income assistance. Qittosuk is also a single mother and her four-year-old daughter isn't old enough to attend kindergarten.

The family's fridge was nearly empty by Jan. 17 — except for a carton of eggs, two carrots and a tub of butter. Opened boxes of rice and breadcrumbs accompany a bag of onions in the family's nearly bare pantry, according to photos submitted by Kittosuk.

Kittosuk's fridge. Photo taken on Jan. 17, 2018. (Submitted by Lucy Kittosuk)

Kittosuk typically babysits her granddaughter as Qittosuk attends school, and she said health issues make it difficult for her to work.

According to Kittosuk, both she and her daughter typically receive monthly income assistance at about $600 each for clothing and food allowance, for a total of about $1,200.

However, she says her daughter was denied her food allowance in December and January because of low school attendance.

Missing school to babysit 

Kittosuk says she was sick and couldn't babysit her granddaughter, so her daughter had to stay home from school in mid-November to care for the child. 

After that, Kittosuk says she flew out to Winnipeg from Nov. 26 to 30 for a medical appointment, so her daughter had to stay home and babysit. 

Qittosuk missed school again at the beginning of December because Kittosuk was still ill, she said. 

Kittosuk's pantry. She said she had to get help from relatives and community members to help feed her family in December. (Submitted by Lucy Kittosuk)

Daycare services are available in Sanikiluaq, but Kittosuk says her granddaughter didn't want to go back because she was afraid of another child. 

Kittosuk said her daughter was given $100 — only a portion of her allowance — in December and the same in January after contacting the department. 

Nunavut's food prices are extremely high and accessibility to fresh foods lags far behind the rest of Canada. One in four people are food-insecure in the territory.

No food allowance for missed school, says government

It's a government policy that those who receive income assistance have to be involved in the "Productive Choice program," where the recipient must choose between school, employment, training, harvesting, volunteering or receiving counselling.

The recipient must continue with their productive choice — for a minimum of 20 hours a week or 80 per cent attendance at school — in order to receive income assistance. Those older than 60 or people with disabilities are exempt from the requirements.

Nunavut's Department of Family Services declined an interview. But a spokesperson said in an email that clients who do not meet the 80 per cent attendance requirements for school will be denied the food allowance. However, they will still receive clothing and other benefits for rent and utilities.

[The] school attendance policy needs to be changed, especially when we need something to eat.- Lucy Kittosuk

When asked if the government considers medical reasons, the spokesperson said medical and childcare reasons are taken into consideration "when substantiated," when calculating someone's income assistance.  

The government did not respond to Qittosuk's case specifically, citing confidentiality.

Kittosuk said the family had to get help from relatives and community members to eat in December.

Government shouldn't leave families 'left alone': MLA

"I have been crying uncontrollably," said Kittosuk in Inuktitut, with a sigh. She said relying on a few hundred dollars a month wasn't sustainable for her family of three.

"This 80 per cent school attendance policy needs to be changed, especially when we need something to eat."

Kittosuk said she feels angry. 

After raising concerns to the income assistance department, she reached out to her local MLA, Allan Rumbolt. 

Kittosuk, 46, is a single mother and grandmother in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. She wants the government to change the 80 per cent school attendance policy that strips families of food allowance if not met. (Submitted by Lucy Kittosuk)

Rumbolt said he sent an email to the Minister of Family Services in January on the family's behalf. 

But Rumbolt said he still hasn't received a response. Kittosuk says she, too, has yet to receive a response from the government.

"You can understand the part where … you could encourage them to stay in school [via the Productive Choice program]," said Rumbolt.

"But at the same time, if they fall behind for issues beyond their control, we shouldn't be leaving them left alone either."

Kittosuk said she's continuing to encourage her daughter not to quit school.

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With files from Michael Salomonie