Store vouchers instead of cash violate human rights, rules N.W.T. tribunal

Three Tuktoyaktuk residents argued the N.W.T. government's decision to distribute store vouchers instead of cash violated their human rights.

'It made me feel really like a small person,' says woman who complained about income support change

Three Tuktoyaktuk residents argued the N.W.T. government's decision to distribute store vouchers instead of cash violated their human rights. An adjudication panel has ruled in favour of the complainants. (Submitted by Krista Laura)

A woman in Tuktoyaktuk says she can afford to buy caribou again after an N.W.T. Human Rights Adjudication Panel ruled it's discriminatory to provide vouchers in lieu of cash to the territory's recipients of income assistance.

The decision was released two weeks ago.

Clara Bates lives on income assistance. She and her brother, Robert Anikina, and her son, Jonathon Bates, filed a complaint against the N.W.T. government in 2013 after the Department of Education, Culture and Employment decided three years prior to change the way it provides income support.

Instead of cash, the government started distributing income assistance in the form of a voucher, managed in Tuktoyaktuk by the community's two stores — the Northern Store and Stanton.

"It is apparent that the decision to provide food allowance as vouchers in Tuktoyaktuk was premised on the suspicion that recipients were spending money on alcohol and drugs as opposed to buying food for children," states the adjudication panel's decision. 

"This was a generalization based on stereotypes, not a conclusion supported by facts."

'It made me feel really like a small person'

The complainants argued the change discriminated against them because it was based on the belief that those on income assistance spend their money on things such as alcohol and cigarettes. The territorial government stated the change was prompted by hamlet and education officials in several communities.

"It made me feel really like a small person," Bates said about the vouchers in an interview with the CBC.

"You're being told how to spend your money. I wasn't even able to buy my own caribou, my own muktuk, my own geese."

She said traditional food is part of her diet, but she doesn't hunt or fish, so she relies on cash to pay hunters for access to things such as caribou and dry meat.

The panel's reasons for the decision includes testimony by all three complainants at a May 2016 hearing. At the hearing, Bates explained the voucher system made her feel "hurt" and "humiliated."

"She feels like her dignity has been taken away," states the decision.

No evidence switch to vouchers effective

The Department of Education, Culture and Employment's income assistance website states the program provides supplemental income to seniors and people with disabilities in the N.W.T. The amount varies based on household income, size of family and community of residency.

In the decision, Tuktoyaktuk's Northern Store manager Ian Ross testified the income support payments he sees range from $800 to $1,200 per month.

The decision also makes reference to a report commissioned by the Department of Education, Culture and Employment to determine whether vouchers are more effective than cash. According to the decision, the report contains no evidence to indicate the change decreased the number of hungry children in Tuktoyaktuk.

Based on the territorial government's report on the effectiveness of the vouchers, the N.W.T. government did allow recipients to receive a $100 cheque starting in May 2012, with the remainder of income support provided to the recipient's "supplier of choice."

The territorial government intended for this change to "address concerns that people on income assistance had no disposable cash," according to the decision.

The adjudication panel states that those on income assistance have a right to be consulted about how their money is provided. It concludes that no consultation exists for recipients in Tuktoyaktuk. Instead, the territorial government made a "unilateral decision" to change the way the money was divvied out.

On Monday, Education, Culture and Employment Minister Alfred Moses acknowledged the decision and announced all recipients of income assistance in the N.W.T. will again receive cash starting in February.

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to more clearly state who instigated the change to a voucher system.
    Dec 13, 2017 12:54 PM CT

With files from Kayla Rosen