N.W.T. anti-poverty strategy failing, say social justice groups

Five years after the territorial government introduced a strategy to eliminate poverty, it’s a bigger problem than ever, says a coalition of anti-poverty groups in the N.W.T.

5 years after strategy introduced, groups say more people are without adequate food, housing

Bree Denning is the executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

Five years after the territorial government introduced a strategy to eliminate poverty, it's a bigger problem than ever, says a coalition of anti-poverty groups in the N.W.T.

The coalition includes Alternatives North, the YWCA and the Yellowknife Women's Society.

The number of people on income assistance across the territory has increased by 19 per cent between 2009 and 2016, according to the NWT Bureau of Statistics, and more people in Yellowknife are turning to the Salvation Army and the food bank's resources.

Bree Denning, executive director of the women's society, said one of the biggest hurdles people have to clear to get out of poverty is finding a home.

"If you're unstably housed and you're struggling to keep your family fed and warm, there's really not the space available to make sure you're getting up on time and putting in the work every day," said Denning.

Denning added that, over the past 10 years, she has seen major developments in terms of expensive condos, but very little to combat the lack of affordable housing.

Denning said she was referring to a fire that destroyed public housing units in Yellowknife two years ago. On Tuesday, another fire destroyed 33 units at Rockhill Apartments in Yellowknife, all of which were used to house women and families while they find permanent homes.

The need for housing is even more desperate in smaller communities.

According to the anti-poverty strategy, almost a third of the houses in small communities are either in need of major repairs, too small to accommodate the number of people living in them, or costing occupants more than 30 per cent of their income.

'Not enough data yet,' says minister

Minister of Health and Social Services Glen Abernethy said it's too early to say whether the strategy is working.

"I believe it was two years ago that we got validation from our partners across the Northwest Territories on 23 indicators we want to be monitoring to determine if progress is being made toward addressing poverty in the Northwest Territories," said Abernethy.

"Some of those are only on the first or second year of data and we need to see data over time."

Some of the numbers the coalition uses to show poverty is on the rise assume that increases in the use of programs and services for those in need reflect an increase in poverty, rather than an increase in services available to those in need.

As evidence that homelessness is on the rise, the update cites the number of youth who took emergency shelter at Hope's Haven and the number of adults and families accommodated under the Housing First Program. Both are new programs, introduced since the anti-poverty strategy was released.

Hopes Haven is in a former Aurora Village building in downtown Yellowknife. (Randall Mckenzie/CBC)

There have been changes made since 2009 to the way the income assistance program is administered in the N.W.T. CBC News contacted the Department of Education, Culture and Employment on Friday to find out what effect, if any, the changes have had on the number of people benefiting from income assistance, but had not received any information by Tuesday afternoon.

Wage gaps

The anti-poverty groups point to statistics that show the poorest 20 per cent of N.W.T. households earn an average of about $25,000 annually, while the richest 20 per cent earn an average of $200,000. The numbers suggest the Northwest Territories remains a place with a wide economic gap between rich and poor, with many of the wealthiest being public servants.

In April, the territorial government increased the minimum wage to $13.46 per hour, from $12.50 per hour. Two parents working full time would have to earn $20.96 per hour to keep themselves and two children out of poverty, according to Alternatives North.

The minimum wage in the N.W.T. is still lower than the minimum wage in much less costly jurisdictions, such as Ontario and Alberta, where the minimum wage is $14 an hour and $15 an hour respectively.