A woman who launched a complaint against the NWT Housing Corporation says she is pleased with the territorial ombud’s findings but plans to continue pursuing outstanding issues.
Earlier this month, NWT ombud Colette Langlois released her first special report. That report focused on fairness in homeowner assistance programs, investigating a complaint from AJ Bird regarding issues her mother and her estate experienced dealing with the housing corporation.
Langlois found the corporation “acted unjustly and oppressively” when it sued Bird’s mother’s estate after her death and was negligent in not registering her mortgage. The ombud also concluded the corporation did not do enough to help Bird’s mother apply for homeowner assistance, follow up with her concerns, or keep her up to date about work on her home.
“I’m quite pleased it was handled the way that it was handled. I thought it was very thorough,” Bird told Cabin Radio.
She noted, however, the ombud wasn’t able to investigate all of the concerns raised.
Under the territory’s Ombud Act, Langlois can only investigate matters from 2016 onward. Bird’s complaint covered problems stretching back to 2011, when her mother purchased the mobile home she lived in with assistance from the housing corporation.
Langlois has advocated that the ombud be allowed to look into complaints predating 2016. In her 2019-2020 annual report, she noted a small number of people made complaints that her office would have investigated if it weren’t for the 2016 cut-off, which was deemed “arbitrary and unfair.”
The NWT’s standing committee on government operations – comprising a handful of territorial MLAs – has recommended that the ombud be able to investigate matters dating back to April 1, 1999. Langlois said that change will require updating legislation, which will take time, and doesn’t mean she will re-investigate complaints that have already been closed.
“Going forward, it would give us the flexibility, if we need to look back further in time, that we would be able to do that without worrying whether we were staying within our mandate or not,” she said.
“It’s kind-of awkward to try and split a complaint when really it’s a continuous series of events.”
Among Bird’s concerns was a 2012 incident in which the housing corporation accepted a verbal cancellation of her mother’s home warranty over the phone, even though her mother had hearing and communication challenges.
“I don’t know anybody that cancels warranties on phone calls, do you? Especially if they’re hearing impaired,” Bird said.
“Very often when people don’t hear, or don’t hear well, even with hearing aids …. they’ll say ‘yes,’ but they’re not really saying yes, they’re just like, ‘yes, you’ve got my attention.’ My mother was known for doing that.”
Bird said the corporation should have been more clear when communicating with her mother and sent letters or had in-person meetings. She added her mother, who is a member of the Deninu Kue First Nation, spent more than 14 years in the residential school system and had added challenges communicating when upset or frustrated.
“She struggled and she was vulnerable, but she was also pretty feisty,” Bird said, “so hard to deal with when she was upset because she couldn’t understand how this happened.”
Bird said when her mother initially approached the housing corporation for help with a seniors’ home heating subsidy, she owned her own mobile home with a one-year old addition attached. Her mother was then “talked into” a mortgage with the corporation for a new mobile home on the site.
There were issues with that home as soon as her mother moved in, Bird said, including uneven floors, leaking, and a lack of skirting insulation, leaving her in a drafty home with tripping hazards.
The addition was removed and never returned, Bird said. That meant her mother could no longer use her wood stove which she used to dry meat and said the heat helped her rheumatoid arthritis.
“I think my mother was taken advantage of due to her vulnerability, from her health and just her situation, and her problems dealing with the loss of my stepfather,” Bird said.
“I do feel that there are systemic issues in the NWT with how Indigenous people are served and treated.”
Asked what happened to the addition, the housing corporation told Cabin Radio it does not comment on individual clients’ cases to ensure their privacy.
The ombud’s report found delays in completing maintenance, repairs, and retrofits on the home between 2016 and 2018 were not unreasonable as they were due to delays with contractors that were outside the housing corporation’s control. Langlois did, however, conclude the corporation had not made reasonable efforts to communicate with Bird’s mother about those delays, noting there were long periods when her concerns went unanswered.
Langlois said clients who have trouble explaining their needs, struggle to remain calm and respectful when upset, or who cannot easily remember or understand information are particularly vulnerable, and require consistency, reliability, and communication skills from housing corporation staff.
‘You shouldn’t have to worry’
Bird told Cabin Radio the housing corporation still has not given her all the information she requested as executor of her mother’s estate.
After her mother’s death, the estate had wanted to know if any damage to her home could be offset against the outstanding balance on the mortgage. The housing corporation had not handed over that information when it sued the estate in December 2018 over the mortgage.
While that lawsuit was dropped in July 2019, Langlois said if the corporation had provided Bird the information in a timely manner, it could have recovered the mortgage faster and without filing a lawsuit.
Bird did eventually get some information about her mother’s home in March 2019 after filing an access to information request. But she believes information is still missing as some documents and emails referenced in the information package she received were not included.
Bird plans to make a further complaint to the territory’s privacy commissioner and look into her legal options.
“You shouldn’t have to worry when you’re dealing with the government,” she said. “They’re supposed to be there to serve people, not cause them more trouble and then act like it’s not their responsibility.”
In her report, Langlois made five recommendations to the housing corporation, including that they apologize to Bird and do more to help clients.
“We try to encourage authorities to … support their staff to provide person-centred service, so the service is built around what people need, not the other way around,” the ombud explained.
“Staff need to be supported to do that and that requires some training and some policy development, and making sure that there’s enough staff to do the work. It’s not meant to be critical of individual staff that were involved in this matter, it’s a systemic problem.”
While the recommendations are not binding, the housing corporation has agreed to make the changes. Langlois said she will check in on the corporation’s progress within a year.
“I think it’s a really positive sign,” she said. “It’s helpful for people to know that they are going to take some steps to address this, and it also makes them accountable for it.”
In an emailed statement, housing minister Paulie Chinna said the corporation is reviewing its mandate, along with many of its programs and policies, to ensure everyone who interacts with the corporation is treated fairly.