A northern social justice coalition says the Northwest Territories is “failing” when it comes to addressing poverty within its borders.
Alternatives North released its first-ever poverty report card for the territory this week, in partnership with Campaign 2000 – a coalition of labour and social justice organizations focused on ending child poverty in Canada.
The report details widespread inequality in the NWT and highlights the financial challenges some families are facing.
Among its findings, the report says a quarter of children in the NWT are living in poverty and at least one in five households lack the financial means to achieve a basic standard of living.
“I believe that we are failing in the response,” said Lois Little, author of the report. “There should not be a quarter of our children living in poverty. That is a fail for me.”
Little says documenting poverty can be challenging as it’s complex and influenced by factors like gender, race, and where people live. The report’s findings are based on 36 indicators of poverty tracked by the NWT and federal governments.
Haves and have-nots
In its 35 pages, the report documents a stark contrast between the “have and the have-nots” in the territory. It notes that those working in government and the natural resources sector have the highest-paying and most secure jobs in the territory. Many workers in the sales and service industry, meanwhile, are struggling to maintain basic living standards.
“There is a portion of the population in the territories that is doing extremely well but there are just too many people that are doing so poorly,” Little said.
“If you look at what is happening during the pandemic … the rich have gotten richer and poor have gotten poorer.”
The report states people living in smaller communities face more challenges than those in larger centres as they have fewer economic opportunities and less access to health, education, and social and protective services.
The report found that almost half of single-parent families in small communities have a low income.
Smaller communities are also disproportionately affected by the housing crisis and food insecurity. In 2018, nearly a quarter of households in the territory said they were worried about affording food, 37 percent of whom lived in smaller communities. In 2018, 79 percent of households on the K’atl’odeeche First Nation reserve, 90 percent in Délı̨nę, and 81 percent in Wekweètì identified a housing problem.
The report outlines eight recommendations to various levels of government, including basic guaranteed income, a living wage, and economic restructuring.
Little said the territory’s economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic is a good start to addressing poverty. She pointed to the wage top-up program, which bumps low-wage workers’ pay to $18 per hour, as an example.
“Why does it take a pandemic to actually top up wages to $18 an hour?” she questioned. “Why does it take a pandemic to invest in shelters and food production? It seems that the government responses to poverty have just not been hitting the mark.”
According to the report, to achieve a decent standard of living in the NWT, both parents in a family of four would have to work full-time earning an hourly rate of $23.95 in Yellowknife, $24.75 in Hay River, and $23.78 in Inuvik. The territory’s minimum wage is currently $13.46.
“The government is telling northerners that they get it, they get what the problems are. So if they turn their back on addressing poverty then I think we really need to be looking at changes in government,” Little said.