Statisticians work toward better measure of northern poverty

An aerial view of downtown Yellowknife
An aerial view of downtown Yellowknife.

Federal statisticians are close to releasing new data intended to more accurately measure the poverty line for families and communities in the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

The market basket measure, a key Statistics Canada data set that acts as the country’s poverty line, isn’t currently available for the northern territories. That’s expected to change in mid-2021, the federal agency said at the start of this month.

In a news release discussing how territorial income levels are changing, Statistics Canada said it had been working to create a “northern market basket measure” by adapting the measure used in the south to reflect “the life and conditions in Yukon and the Northwest Territories.”

Ordinarily, the market basket measure approximates the cost of a specific set of goods and services needed for a basic standard of living. It includes the costs of food, clothing, shelter, and transportation among other items.



Adaptations for the North will include the recognition of northern families’ greater need for warm winter clothing, an attempt to incorporate food costs in different northern communities, and the exclusion of public transport from the measure. Instead, only private transport costs are included, while the northern measure will also factor in the cost of operating an SUV rather than a compact car “considering the road infrastructure in the territories.”

“For the fly-in communities in the Northwest Territories, the transportation costs would be based on the costs associated with purchasing a new mid-quality range ATV from Hay River and shipping it by barge to the fly-in community, as well as the costs associated with operating and maintaining it,” a discussion paper published in January states.

By the middle of this year, Statistics Canada expects to publish “preliminary thresholds and poverty estimates” for the Yukon and Northwest Territories. That data can be used to drive government decision-making around how the needs of residents are addressed.

The NWT Bureau of Statistics, which is contributing to the federal effort, already maintains its own modified market basket measure for the territory. The NWT’s experimental measure primarily changes the clothing portion of the existing national measure, the bureau says on its website.



The most recent data from the NWT’s measure suggests a family of four in the territory would need at least $60,000 a year – but in some cases, $80,000 or more – to meet their basic needs.

The NWT’s measure involves six communities: Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Hay River, Inuvik, Norman Wells, and Yellowknife.

Statistics Canada expects its new northern market basket measure to more broadly apply throughout the NWT. A separate indicator of the poverty line will be issued for six regions: Yellowknife, Beaufort Delta, Sahtu, Tłįchǫ, Dehcho, and South Slave.

Work to create a similar measure for Nunavut is also under way.

Meanwhile, Statistics Canada – quoting the latest available data, from 2018 – said this month that NWT residents still have the highest after-tax income in Canada. The median income for families and unattached individuals is $93,500, rising to $106,300 in Yellowknife.

The Nunavut median is $89,300. It’s $73,200 in Yukon. The income survey simply assesses income and doesn’t immediately compare it to the cost of living, which is where the new market basket measure would come in.

“While these estimates from the Canadian Income Survey do not reflect the impacts of the pandemic, they do provide a baseline for assessing developments during the pandemic and shine light on which Canadian families may be most vulnerable financially,” Statistics Canada said.