A creation story

Ross Findlater Because 2016 is the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, it seems fitting to start off the year revisiting how we came to exist. During the winter of 1995-96, the then minister of Health and Social Services

COMMENTARY

by Ross Findlater

Because 2016 is the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, it seems fitting to start off the year revisiting how we came to exist.

During the winter of 1995-96, the then minister of Health and Social Services announced a territory-wide public consultation on three health issues. Just before the community meetings began he added a fourth question -“where should cuts be made to the Yukon social assistance (SA) program?” He had apparently been told that Yukon’s “high SA rates” would attract migrants from B.C. and Alberta.

The family committee of the non-profit Yukon Family Services Association (now called “Many Rivers”) was keenly aware of the struggles that the agency’s clients were having to provide for their families as social assistance recipients. They were hearing of those financial and other related struggles, especially for single parents, through members of parent support groups, from a phone-in show that staff participated in on CHON-FM, and from a survey questionnaire sent to all Yukon schools.

Eighteen schools promptly responded. Many reported an increase over the past year in “the number of students coming to school either unfed or underfed,” and/or arriving without proper clothing. A full two-thirds of responding schools had seen an increase in “families unable to afford fees for activities such as school trips, etc.”

With this concerning picture becoming clearer, staff and volunteers from the YFSA’s family committee undertook researching the SA program facts, and comparing Yukon SA rates to the government’s income figures. The Yukon Bureau of Statistics’ report on Yukon income distribution from 1986 to 1992 indicated Yukon had higher rates of low income households than southern Canada. The proportion of children under 18 years of age in the Yukon in low income (lowest 20 per cent of the income range) families was 11.6 percentage points higher than in the 10 provinces. So we in the Yukon were already experiencing a disproportionate rate of child poverty!

As this report (published in August 1994) was the most recent available, it was then determined that the inflation rate (CPI) had increased in Whitehorse by at least another 5.8 per cent to the time of YFSA’s report to the minister.

In comparing the maximum “basic needs” SA annual amounts payable to eligible Yukoners to the government’s Low Income Measures (1992) for different family sizes and compositions the differences were striking, and consistently negative for SA recipients. For a single adult the Low Income Measure (LIM), similar to a “poverty line”, was almost $3,100 more than the maximum available from SA basic needs. For a family of three adults and two children the LIM was more than $5,000 above what SA Basic needs could provide.

Public statements were made by the minister that there were, and would be, social assistance recipients arriving in the Yukon at the encouragement of provincial jurisdictions to take advantage of Yukon’s higher rates. Unfortunately neither the minister nor the presentations at the consultations included the fact that the Yukon had a “transient rate” of up to $350 per month. This was for those who had not lived in the Yukon for at least 12 consecutive months, or had not been employed here for at least three consecutive months. Our report confidently stated that we did not believe there was “much danger of people ‘flooding’ up the highway to receive an annual SA payment of up to $4,200 to live in the Land of Gold”.

The submission to the minister on March 13, 1996, was copied to the government leader, and to the leaders of the other parties and to government officials. Included were a number of recommendations to improve the program for people in the Yukon, including to not cut the existing SA rates. Needless to say, the rates were not cut!

A major learning from this process was that those most directly affected by the government SA policies were virtually “voiceless.” We decided that an ongoing “voice” was required, and our first monthly meeting was held in May 1996.

The first six years, the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition consisted solely of volunteers and volunteer activity, augmented by personal donations from MPs Louise Hardy, and later Larry Bagnell. A notable initiative that first winter saw some of us outside the federal building on Main Street with a clothesline of “dirty laundry” (attached were facts about poverty, local and national) created by Sara Crangell. A photo of that ended up on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen. We knew then that we (and the media) could have a powerful impact!

Over time, YAPC members have “spawned” many new initiatives – Downtown Urban Gardeners Society, Habitat for Humanity, the Whitehorse Food Bank, Connects Days and the Yukon Mental Health Association to name just a few. Spawning, as demonstrated by Yukon salmon, requires perseverance and commitment. We have seen 20 years of such activity!

Ross Findlater is a founding member of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.

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