Navigating the complicated world of income assistance in the N.W.T.

One family says the territory is treating them unfairly and they’re struggling to make ends meet.

Ichiban noodles have been the daily meal for Chris Dryneck’s family for weeks. They say it’s the only meal the family can afford after being cut off from income assistance in April.

The Tlicho Dene man has been blind since birth and has been relying on income assistance for over three decades.

“I can’t go out and get a job and work for my wife and my daughter, or go hunting, I am blind, and I don’t have an education,” Dryneck said.

Sharon, his spouse, encounters difficulties finding work due to her inability to read and write, while their 12-year-old daughter has a disability.

The Drynecks said they can’t afford trips to Edmonton for important medical appointments with surgeons and specialists, instead, opting to cancel them, leading to Chris being prescribed sleeping pills to handle the anxiety.

The NWT Income Assistance office in Yellowknife is reviewing Dryneck’s 2023 Canada Revenue Agency notice of assessment to determine his eligibility for financial support. Dryneck’s income assistance, usually covering his living expenses, was terminated after Sharon took on janitorial shifts with the Tlicho government in 2023, resulting in a difficult financial situation for the family.

“We get $1,200 a month,” said Dryneck. “It’s nothing because the groceries is high, everything is high. On top of that, income assistance said I owe them $3,600  and they are taking money from my income support cheque.”
They’re seeking help from Jordan’s Principle, but their application filed two months ago goes unfilled.

According to Dryneck, his client navigator, or case worker, instructed him to promptly visit the primary office in Yellowknife to hand in extra documents in person to avoid the risk of being cut off.

“We have to hire someone to take us to Yellowknife to get those documents and we pay $200 every time we take a trip to Yellowknife, and we don’t have that kind of money,” Dryneck said. “This income support we need it. We depend on it.”

‘Tell them to give cash or gift cards’

The family believes they have been treated unfairly throughout the situation and are often pushed to sign paperwork they are unsure about.

“They would tell me to sign, put an x here, but I don’t know what I’m signing, and they don’t explain nothing,” Dryneck said. “I wait in the lobby and they will come out and say sign here but they never take us to other side and sit down with us.”

Johnelle Joseph, manager of NWT Disabilities Council, said that when clients sign paperwork for income assistance, they may not be aware that they are authorizing the authorities to contact the Canada Revenue Agency, access their tax return, and review their bank accounts.

“I always tell my clients, you cannot put anything in your account. Do not get any family member to help you and do not take any money because it’s all counted against you,” Johnelle said. “Tell them to give cash or gift cards.”

She said working with clients who have to repay income assistance because they received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) without realizing how it would impact their future income support. Johnelle shared with APTN News that she has assisted individuals facing potential utility disconnection and significant arrears due to miscommunication between the income assistance office managing payments and the NWT Power Corporation, which either made incorrect payments or delayed them.

The refusal form is cut and dry, with no spot for a written explanation of why a client has been denied income assistance.

While theoretically everyone is entitled to an advocate, Dryneck said his advocate has not been permitted to participate in any phone call meetings to start the appeal process in reality.

Johnelle said with her clients, the option to appeal a denial decision isn’t well presented.

“A lot of our clients have a disability, physical or cognitive, so they’re very concrete usually and if you tell them you’re denied, you don’t qualify, they think they never qualify for it and don’t want to apply again,” Johnelle said. They don’t know they can appeal the decision.”

She said that client navigators might not know about the exceptions that disabled individuals can get, like having the charges for ambulances and ID cards waived.

“They need to understand that they do hold power and can’t abuse it by saying ‘someone didn’t answer me’ or ‘someone raised their voice in that instance,’” Johnelle said. “We’ve had clients that have traumatic brain injury that are banned from income assistance office.”

Working the social assistance system in N.W.T.

Almost one-quarter of residents in Behchoko rely on income assistance. The community, with a population of 2,000, is mainly Tlicho Dene and has more than 400 individuals receiving support.

Following Behchoko, the remote Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk has more than 175 clients on income assistance. In Yellowknife, the capital city, more than 900 people utilized income assistance in the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

Sarah Madsen, who oversees income security programs in Yellowknife, said that most clients receive long-term assistance. Only 19 residents of the Northwest Territories out of the 3,000 receiving support appealed decisions to deny them benefits.

“That’s a very low number and client navigators do let people know that they can appeal, but I think there’s fear on both ends for both the client navigator and the individual about appealing,” Madsen said. “It is definitely a process that’s worth following through with and it’s a good opportunity for us to take a look at our policies were they applied correctly.”

Clients must appeal to the social assistance appeal committee within 10 business days. If the decision is contested, either the client or the department can appeal to the social assistance appeal board. Madsen said that many income assistance applicants in small communities fail to report contract work to their client navigator.

“If it says there’s employment wages and we look at what they claimed in the previous year and they never claimed employment wages, then we’re required by legislation to look into that we need to know because we need to make sure that you received the appropriate amount of benefits in the month that you got them,” Madsen said.

Territory is working on a new system, slowly

The territorial government has recognized the flaws in the current system and said it’s working on a new, more client-friendly Income Assistance system for the past four years.

They have announced significant upcoming changes to the program, including the introduction of a single benefit that takes into account the cost of living in different regions, replacing separate allowances for necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and utilities. This innovative approach will be based on the northern market basket measure.

The program will now have distinct sections for adults aged 19 to 59 and seniors and individuals with disabilities.

Dryneck and others will no longer need to reapply for assistance monthly, they can now request aid annually and ideally receive a yearly income.

Maden believes that the change will decrease the amount of paperwork client navigators have to deal with, allowing them to focus more on helping those in need.

“There’s also a lot of seniors and persons with disabilities who physically cannot make it to the office and that presents a challenge because our client navigators don’t have the ability to leave the office and go to somebody’s house to help them with an application,” Maden said.

“It requires us working collaboratively with home care or somebody else from health team.”

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