Food voucher handouts continue in Nunavut as government repairs ransomware damage

In Iqaluit, income support recipients will receive cheques again

Food vouchers distributed by Nunavut’s Department of Family Services to income support recipients can be exchanged at Northern and co-op stores throughout the territory. These vouchers will continue to be distributed in communities where the Government of Nunavut’s computers are still down following the recent ransomware attack. (File photo)

By Jane George

If you’re a member of one the roughly 4,000 households in Nunavut receiving monthly income support, you have probably seen a food voucher, distributed by the Government of Nunavut after the Nov. 2 ransomware attack knocked out its computers.

If you live outside Iqaluit, you are likely to continue receiving food vouchers, instead of a monthly cheque, in December as well.

Income support recipients in Iqaluit will now receive cheques, as before, because the computer network for the Department of Family Services in the capital has come back online.

But many income support recipients who live in other communities will continue to receive food vouchers until the territorial government manages to get back online everywhere.

“For December, we should be pretty much back to normal,” Yvonne Niego, the deputy minister of family services, said in an interview on Nov. 21. “But, whether it’s in food or cash or cheques, that will be the question for December.”

Some income support recipients say they are confused by the amounts of the vouchers they received in November.

For instance, Maryann Iqulik from Baker Lake, a single mother of a nine-month-old baby, said she received a food voucher for just $460, while she usually receives $960 in cash every month.

Niego said that when the GN decided to hand out vouchers, it couldn’t see what amount of income support its clients received. So income assistance workers gave out food vouchers with amounts based on what their tables listing standard amounts of income support suggested, Niego said.

“With all systems down, it’s very difficult to calculate what someone would be entitled to,” she said.

The proper assessments should be in place by the end of the month after clients get re-evaluated by income assistance workers, she said.

Clients have been asked to come back to workers and go over their files. Income assistance workers will then check all the calculations manually.

This process demands more time and more math, Niego said, but staff have had lots of teleconferences and communications by fax to help them learn how to do this without computers.

The food vouchers look like cheques and can be exchanged at co-op stores and Northern stores around the territory for food or other merchandise.

To attract voucher holders, the Northern store in Cambridge Bay gave a bonus to clients who came in to use them: up to $75 if they came in with a $800 voucher.

The Arctic Connections store in Arviat carries a large variety of groceries and other items, but income support recipients can’t use their food vouchers at the store, which employs up to 30 residents in the community of about 3,000. (Photo courtesy of Arctic Connections)

But the voucher system hasn’t helped smaller independent stores in some communities, which have lost money since the beginning of November: the family-run Arctic Connections store in Arviat usually cashes cheques for about 80 income support recipients.

But this month none of them came in, said manager Amber Ramsay. That’s caused the store’s business to drop, she said.

As well, store accounts usually got paid on a monthly basis, but in November they didn’t get topped up. Now customers can’t charge more because their accounts are maxed out, she said.

That’s just part of the ripple effects of the ransomware attack.

The attack also held up new income security applications and left at least one applicant, a mother with several children, with an empty refrigerator and cupboards.

The ransomware attack has affected adult students as well: some Adult Learning Training Support program recipients found their payments delayed.

Niego said that’s because they weren’t receiving direct deposits, were new students or were living in remote communities with no banking services.

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