Rolling back COVID benefits from those who need it most

“We owe it to the people of the NWT to make sure we don’t lose the gains we have made in the past three months. We also owe it to them to build on these gains together.”

Premier Caroline Cochrane, Hill Times column June 10, 2020


I had hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic had birthed a GNWT that’s more generous and helpful to vulnerable residents, but it hasn’t.  New supports brought in early in the COVID crisis were wiped out this week, leaving children, child care workers, low-wage workers and income assistance clients as badly off as before.  People who saw their incomes go up will now see them go back down.

The pandemic has highlighted inequities that already existed in the NWT. The government seems determined to maintain them. The important changes announced yesterday included:

  • An end to exemptions on unearned income counting toward benefit totals – this exemption enabled people on income support to keep COVID related payments (mostly from the federal government) – projected to be worth $270,000
  • An end to the subsidy for child care fees and a top up to the wages for child care workers – worth an estimated  $3.2 million
  • Emergency housing related to COVID (like the Aspen/Plywood Plaza in Yellowknife) -worth $5 million
  • An end to the wage top up program for people who earned less than $18/hour – potentially worth $6.2 million – at the end of July

You may be looking at that list and saying, “well the government spent the better part of $15 million on these programs.” But that’s not the case. As of the end of May, Education, Culture and Employment had spent $1.6 million and the Department of Finance had spent just over $1 million on all of its COVID-related initiatives. That’s $2.6 million, about one-fifth of the budgeted amount. The Housing Corporation hasn’t reported on its COVID spending. In other words, the government spent a fraction of the total money allocated to the social envelope.

The Standing Committee on Social Development has analyzed the impact the improved benefits.  My committee colleagues MLA Caitlin Cleveland, MLA Lesa Semmler, MLA Rocky Simpson, MLA Ron Bonnetrouge spent weeks talking about the large volume of  responses we each received from constituents. We tabled our report on the long-term post-pandemic recovery on June 9.  We praised ECE for its client-focused response to the pandemic. We specifically asked ECE to continue to allow Income Assistance clients to keep unearned income to help alleviate the deep poverty anyone on Income Assistance experiences. This advice was ignored.  Our report is available here. ( )

The same committee also recommended “the NWT advance universal childcare by maintaining the additional funding provided during the pandemic to support operational, cleaning costs, employee wage subsidies and food insecurity issues anticipated to be more severe post COVID.” The government said no to that as well, despite the dire need most communities have for affordable, licensed child care and to enable additional workers (usually women) to enter or re-enter the workforce. How is a $1.6 million investment by ECE not important to its child development goals and to creating employment in a frail economy?

A third committee recommendation said, “the GNWT continue to offer the wage top-up as a permanent program to businesses, providing financial assistance to NWT workers aged 15 or over and earning less than $18 per hour.” The rationale was to bring people closer to a living wage where they can earn enough to cover basic expenses. (The living wage for Yellowknife is about $23 per hour; the minimum wage is $13.46 per hour for NWT.)

The pandemic has unexpectedly created opportunities for better government service (and of course in some cases the opposite has happened). But rather than evaluate the Committee’s recommendations and any information on the impact of these benefits, Cabinet acted unilaterally to scale benefits back for those who need them most. This is a slap in the face to them and to the Committee.

The Premier’s high profile comments gave us hope for a new regime of improved supports and benefits for the most disadvantaged.  The Premier claims this host of “investments and measures have helped us make some major advances in improving the health, housing, and other social supports our people have so urgently needed.”  All that was wiped out this week. 

It’s time for the Premier to revisit her recent comments, heed Committee’s advice and reinstate benefits who need them most.


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