Sask. advocates warn new social income program pushing people into crisis, minister says give it time

A Regina great-grandmother is feeling the pinch of changes to Saskatchewan's social assistance program. 

‘Nobody in Regina can make ends meet on social assistance,’ says retired great-grandmother of 6

Regina great-grandmother Debbie McKenzie-Pelletier has seen her benefits drastically reduced under the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, which came fully into effect at the end of August. (Janani Whitfield/CBC)

As anti-poverty advocates warn that homelessness is on the rise and tents are being erected in Regina's Heritage neighbourhood, one Regina great-grandmother is feeling the pinch of changes to Saskatchewan's social assistance program. 

Debbie McKenzie-Pelletier said she used to receive $700 a month under the Saskatchewan Assistance Program, and would get help with her utility bills as well. Now, under the new Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, that amount has been reduced to $300, leaving her with anxious questions.

"Am I going to have enough to pay that bill? Am I going to have enough to feed my kids? Because these bills aren't cheap. My water bill is always over $200, and now on this new program, I can't pay it all." 

McKenzie-Pelletier worked as a cleaner at the Saskatchewan legislature for 34 years and is drawing a pension, as well as getting support as a guardian to her six great-grandchildren, who would otherwise be in foster care. She said the new changes mean money is constantly on her mind and that she looks to Regina's community fridges for help feeding her family.  

"I was trying to budget to make sure I had grocery money. And I never had to worry about that before, ever," she said. "I managed all my life on what I worked for. And now, this?" 

The new SIS program came fully into effect at the end of August, replacing the Transitional Employment Allowance and Saskatchewan Assistance Program.

Since the new program was announced in 2019, the government has touted it as a way to help people receiving assistance become more self-sufficient.

But advocates have been warning that people will suffer under the new program.

"We are indeed in a state of emergency when it comes to homelessness. And that is directly connected to just how inadequate this program is," said Peter Gilmer, an advocate with the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry.

People have recently erected a tent city in Regina's Heritage neighbourhood as a temporary solution to the rise of homelessness in the city.

Gilmer said SIS is providing substantially less income support than the previous program. 

"We're going to continue to see a growth in homelessness and also an increase in the desperation of people who may not be as visible as those who are abjectly homeless, but who are certainly finding themselves in very dire circumstances and in desperate straits."

Saskatchewan's Minister of Social Services Lori Carr said SIS has only been operating for a few weeks and needs to be given a chance.

"What was part of the goal of SIS is to try and help some of these people find some independence and some reliance on doing things on their own," Carr told CBC Saskatchewan's The Morning Edition.

"Then for those people that truly don't have that capability, we're here to work with them."

LISTEN | CBC's Stefani Langenegger interviews Minister of Social Services Lori Carr on The Morning Edition 
Social Services Minister Lori Carr responds to critics who say there is a crisis of homelessness and addiction after changes to the provincial income assistance programs. 17:22

Carr said she couldn't speak to individual cases like McKenzie-Pelletier's, but that someone from the Ministry of Social Services would contact the great-grandmother.

Carr also didn't have statistics on how many people moved from the Transitional Employment Allowance and Saskatchewan Assistance Program to SIS in August. 

She said some people would have seen their benefits decrease when the programs switched, but that others are receiving more money through SIS.

Gilmer said McKenzie-Pelletier's case is not unique and illustrates the failings of the SIS program.

"You're dealing with these kinds of problems on a mass scale," Gilmer said.

"To suggest that this can all be solved on a case-by-case basis, I would suggest it's ludicrous."

Worries for the future

Even if she manages to get through her basic monthly expenses, McKenzie-Pelletier said there isn't enough left to pay for everything else it takes to raise six children.

"My kids ... ask me, 'Nani, can I have a new outfit?'" she said. "Well, Nani can't afford it right now, we're on a tight budget. And I never had to say that to them. I've got a grandson that needs new runners. I can't even buy new runners for him." 

McKenzie-Pelletier said she knows of many people who have been "struggling every day" since the change to SIS.

"Nobody in Regina can make ends meet on social assistance," she said. "Yes, I know, they should maybe get a part-time job. But I just figured I worked all my life. I shouldn't have to do this." 

With files from Colleen Silverthorn and The Morning Edition