No End in Sight for Poverty in NWT

antipovertynov2016-cropSeveral national anti-poverty advocacy organizations released reports in November. The news for both Canada as a whole and the NWT is pretty grim: both nationally and in the NWT, one in five children live in poverty, food bank use is going up and so is use of emergency shelters. The latter point was starkly confirmed when CBC North reported that emergency shelters are so full that people are being turned away. Their options are to ask to sleep in RCMP cells, walk to the hospital to sleep in a chair in the lobby or sleep over a warm air vent. A cold exposure death is almost inevitable. It’s also preventable.

All of this news coincides with the 4th annual GNWT Anti-Poverty Round Table, held November 29-30 in Inuvik. Many of the delegates run non-profits on a shoestring, providing short-term solutions to immediate problems such as hunger and homelessness. Others in municipal and aboriginal governments do what they can. The responsibility for funding the reduction of poverty lies with the territorial and federal governments.

The Minister of Health and Social Services, Glen Abernethy, led the charge on the creation of an anti-poverty strategy and action plan in the 17th Assembly. I took part in this work on behalf of the non-profit sector, with high hopes it would make a difference. So far, I’m disappointed. The major takeaway from the gathering in Inuvik is that the department has launched a new anti-poverty website and it will continue to administer the $500,000 GNWT Anti-Poverty Fund. Neither initiative is anything like the transformative action we need.

The APF has funded some good work, mostly related to providing short-term help, and often in the form of food. But providing food is not the answer to hunger; increasing local food production is a better alternative. As the saying goes, “give a man a fish, he’ll eat today; teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Investments in housing and homelessness have also been meager given the size of the fund.

The Minister is fond of saying “government can’t solve the problem [of poverty] on its own.” That’s true, but only government has the capacity to make investments that will create systemic solutions to poverty. We need more housing, a basic income guarantee to the needs of those on low income, and investments in food production and distribution. The GNWT has obtained money from Ottawa to fund emergency shelter renovations and assist Housing First but has yet to make a substantial investment of its own beyond the Anti-Poverty Fund.

This week in Inuvik delegates looked at indicators suggested by the minister’s staff that will tell us whether there is progress being made in six areas of poverty reduction including housing, food security and income assistance. Unless and until there is significant government investment in poverty reduction, the indicators will show that nothing much has improved and some people are worse off, as the national reports reveal. The band aids we now provide are not a solution; they trap people in poverty, sometimes for generations. It’s time – well past time – for that to change.