Aklavik mayor Andrew Charlie believes drug dealers could be the biggest winners of a coming shift in the way income support is paid to community members. Here’s the years-long backstory behind a strongly worded message he posted online on Monday.

Since 2011, the food allowance portions of income assistance payments in some Northwest Territories communities have been provided, at least partly, in the form of food vouchers instead of cash.

That change came at the request of local authorities, who felt that cash payments were often used to buy drugs, alcohol, or other items, instead of essential supplies like food for children.

However, in November last year, the territory’s Human Rights Adjudication Panel ruled that substituting cash with vouchers violated the human rights of residents receiving income assistance.

Read: The full Human Rights Adjudication Panel ruling

Read: The territorial government’s response to that ruling

In response, the territorial government pledged to resume paying income assistance entirely in cash from February 1 this year.

In a statement released by the Hamlet of Aklavik on Monday, Charlie criticized that outcome and said drug dealers were already profiting from the expected influx of cash.

“We worry about the families that are in this situation,” Charlie’s statement read. “Will the children have a proper diet, are they safe?

“We understand that the majority of residents will be responsible and can provide for themselves and their families, however the ones that abuse the system now will continue to abuse the system. [It is now] much easier to neglect family needs to satisfy one’s addiction needs with encouragement by Income Support.

“We have heard that the drug dealers are now operating on a ‘buy now, pay later’ scheme to take advantage of this newfound wealth coming February 1, 2018.”

Charlie said the hamlet had approached local RCMP members – adding “we know who the drug dealers are” – to ask that everything “legally possible” be done to round up and prosecute the dealers.

The voucher system

Aklavik, Tuktoyaktuk, and Ulukhaktok are among 10 communities signed up to the system of replacing cash with food vouchers. The territorial government said that it was committed to “consistent, equitable access to all of our programs,” but would work with communities “in unique circumstances … to ensure the security and well-being of members.”

In September 2011, when the change came into effect in Tuktoyaktuk, resident Clara Bates told the CBC: “It’s like residential school all over again, or authority telling us what to do.”

Bates filed a complaint against the territorial government in 2013, leading to last November’s human rights ruling.

The adjudication panel, in publishing its decision, said Bates and several other complainants “have established on a balance of probabilities that they were discriminated against on the basis of social condition.” The panel said the complainants “were disadvantaged by the assumptions made about their ability to manage their own finances.”

At an earlier hearing in 2016, the panel had investigated the impact of the food voucher system in Tuktoyaktuk – in particular its effect on childhood hunger, which the system was in part designed to address.

Testifying to the panel, Karyn Hicks – who helped to author a territorial report on the food voucher program – said there was “no hard evidence … to indicate that the payment of food allowance in vouchers decreased the number of hungry children.”

The panel also heard that the food vouchers could be used to buy many items other than food, which undermined any attempt to rely on the program for reduction of child hunger.

In conclusion, the panel said there was no evidence to support the ‘stereotype’ of income assistance recipients spending the payments on drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or candy, in lieu of food for their children. Providing food vouchers instead of cash, the panel ruled, stripped the complainants of their dignity.

‘Bad apples’

In his statement, the Aklavik mayor called for a replacement system whereby recipients of income assistance would be required to show their previous month’s receipts before accessing their next cash payment, to demonstrate the purchase of appropriate items.

Many respondents on Facebook heavily criticized this proposal, claiming it to be as discriminatory as the initial food voucher solution or worse.

However, one Facebook user claiming to be a former school worker in the community wrote that “kids came to school literally starving, saying they didn’t have food at home.”

They added: “Obviously Aklavik has a mayor who is concerned about youth and family wellness. That is something to be proud of as others sit by and let it happen.”

But a former Aklavik resident countered: “Most people spend their money properly. How dare they make everyone show how they spend their money because of a few bad apples?”