The social safety net’s all torn up


Nearly seven years after its creation, the Nunavut government is still spinning its wheels, unable to serve most residents any better than it served them in 1999.

The best evidence for this is to be found in the growing numbers of people who are allowed or encouraged to slip through what passes for a social safety net in Nunavut. The evidence now seems to show that this “safety net” is so full of holes it hardly catches anyone anymore.

Here are some examples:

• Health care: Some Nunavut residents are now discovering that a Nunavut health card isn’t worth much more than a used Nevada ticket. People unlucky enough to acquire health problems that are too expensive or too inconvenient to treat are either cajoled or coerced into becoming residents of other provinces, and in some extreme cases, denied health care altogether. For Inuit beneficiaries, this is a galling experience. It’s no wonder that the Department of Health and Social Services is now one of the Nunavut government’s most hated institutions.

• Housing: We already know that Nunavut’s longstanding shortage of social housing units is a disaster, and we already know that it makes every other social problem worse. What we don’t know is why the GN cannot rearrange its spending priorities to find enough money for a modest construction program of its own. We also don’t know if the much-blathered-about Kelowna arrangements will actually deliver the housing commitments that leaders bragged about so loudly last December. Nearly three months later, no concrete details have been announced.

• Income support: We also know that the cost of living in Nunavut, especially the cost of food, is rising dramatically, driven by rising energy and transportation costs. The GN has increased the food allowance component of its income support system, but not enough to provide anyone with decent nutrition. The food allowance payment for a single person in Iqaluit, for example, is less than $300 a month. At the same time, the GN shamelessly subtracts federal child tax benefit payments from its clients’ welfare cheques. This is a perversion of a federal program intended to help low-income families.

• Adult education: Basic adult upgrading and vocational training are essential pieces of the social safety net, because they give people essential tools to escape poverty. But, as evidenced by a report recently tabled in the legislative assembly, Arctic College has degenerated into a moribund institution, unable to meet the challenges posed by Nunavut’s needy population.

In its early years, the Nunavut government was able to get away with its social policy failings by blaming them on dysfunctional systems inherited from the Northwest Territories, incompetent planning by the Office of the Interim Commissioner, and the federal government’s stinginess.

But those excuses don’t cut it anymore.

Next week, Nunavut’s finance minister is expected to unveil a budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year that’s likely to exceed the $1 billion mark — so it’s obvious that Ottawa’s annual transfers to Nunavut have improved significantly since 1999. And depending on the outcome of an expert panel that is now studying territorial formula funding, those transfers could improve even further in the future.

This raises a question that Nunavut officials, elected and non-elected, have dodged for years: how much is enough?

It also raises more questions: What is the Nunavut government doing with its money? What are its priorities? Is the GN damaging services by carrying too many unproductive but expensive employees? What is the real cost of decentralization?

Yet another question is policy. Despite the unaccountably large number of employees who bear the job title “policy analyst,” the GN is strangely devoid of actual policies. Without coherent policies, and a system for bringing old policies up to date, new money can be frittered away and wasted. And without policies, reptilian bureaucrats get to wing it when difficult issues land on their desks. As we’ve seen, this can produce devastating consequences for their victims, and acute embarrassment for the government.

As might be expected in an immature, poorly-led institution that’s still unable to stand on its on two feet with confidence, the GN is permeated by fear and distrust. It’s a secretive, paranoid government that fears and distrusts its own employees, its clients, the public, the media, and members of the legislative assembly.

Within such a toxic atmosphere, officials are unlikely to take part in honest discussions aimed at creating policies that make sense. It also makes it next to impossible for officials to talk about making hard political choices about where to spend money and where not to spend. Instead, they’ll keep their heads down and do or say whatever it is that suits their erratic political masters.

So if you want to enjoy life in Nunavut for the forseeable future, make sure that you’re employed, affluent and physically healthy. If you’re poor or sick, your best option is to move to Ontario. JB

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