Some fear human rights decision will hurt families on social assistance in the Beaufort Delta region

The mayor of Aklavik, N.W.T. fears new money flowing into the community will bring hard drugs with it.

Aklavik mayor fears distributing cash instead of food vouchers could bring hard drugs to his community

Aklavik, N.W.T., Mayor Andrew Charlie wants some form of government oversight to remain on how social assistance funds are distributed in the community. (Hamlet of Aklavik)

Andrew Charlie, the Mayor of Aklavik, N.W.T., fears changes to how income assistance payments are distributed in his community might open the door to a wave of illegal drugs and social disruption.

Starting Feb.1, three Beaufort Delta communities will no longer have income assistance money sent directly to local stores under a food voucher program. Instead, residents on assistance will receive the money directly.

This means some in the community will have more cash on hand at the start of every month, instead of credit at local grocery or general stores.

"As a community in the long-run [we] think it's going to do more harm than good to the recipient," Charlie said.

"We are hearing a lot of rumours of the very hard drugs that you are hearing [about] around the [Beaufort] Delta region ... are on the way to Aklavik."

On Monday, Charlie released a statement on behalf of the hamlet with a plea that the territorial government implement a strict social assistance income oversight program in the region to replace the outgoing system.

A view of Aklavik, N.W.T. Some in the community fear a change to how social assistance income is distributed will lead to an increase of hard drugs in the hamlet. (CBC)

In 2010, the territorial government made the decision to replace cash with food vouchers in three Beaufort Delta region communities: Aklavik, Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok. The decision was made in consultation with, and supported by, the hamlets, the district education authorities and others.

Under the program, recipients of social assistance received a small portion of their allotment as a cashable cheque with the remainder available as vouchers for community grocery and general stores.

But late last year, an N.W.T. human rights panel ruled the practice of distributing social assistance through vouchers instead of cash as discriminatory.

Now some in the hamlet, including the mayor, are concerned social assistance income will go to drugs or alcohol.

More harm than good

Charlie says that at the very least, the territorial government should insist on receipts for those on social assistance demonstrating that the previous month's cheque was spent wisely before a new cheque is issued. Charlie said 90 per cent of those on social assistance in the community spend the money responsibly, but the remainder "totally abuse it."

"We are just worried about our members getting into these hard drugs that's getting into the delta."

Charlie said he is supported by the hamlet as well as Indigenous governments in the region, but he realizes only the Government of the Northwest Territories can enforce the policy he's asking for.

He said the region's MLA, Frederick Blake, visited the community recently and will bring the hamlet's concerns with him to the next sitting of the Legislative Assembly.

But the idea of receipts for income assistance has sparked a heated debate in Aklavik.

Individual rights, social responsibilities

Zara Carnogursky now lives in High Level, Alta., but her extended family lives in the community and relies on social assistance to make ends meet.

"I was talking to them [the family] online and they are really distraught about it," she said.

Zara Carnogursky says any receipt for payment arrangement violates human rights. (Zara Carnogurska/Facebook)

"They say it's going to cause more fear because they already feel a sense of shame to be on social assistance … and then to have more red-tape to get through just to put the bare minimum on the table, I think is just ridiculous."

Carnogursky says the mayor's heart is in the right place — Charlie wants to keep drugs out of the community — but she says his approach not only risks humiliating those who need help, it does not respect important aspects of life in the North, including the wide availability of country food.

"What if somebody bought some wild meat, dry fish or dry meat from their cousin and [has] a hand-written receipt?" Carnogursky asked.

"Is the council going to assume that it's a fake receipt and not give them their cheque?"

For Carnogursky, any receipt-for-payment arrangement is a violation of human rights.

Jayneta Pascal, a former community justice coordinator in Aklavik, says that she supports the mayor's call for continued oversight.

Jayneta Pascal, a life-long Aklavik resident, and former community justice coordinator, supports the mayor's call for continued oversight.

"I liked the way it was before when it was going through the store because people actually had to spend their money there and get them and their family food and clothes and the necessities that they needed," she said.

"I'm happy they [the hamlet] are doing something, and in a way I'm sad that they have to do this.

"We shouldn't have to tell people your children being clothed or fed is first priority [over] your cigarettes or gambling problem."