Yukon’s aboriginal people on social assistance are being treated badly by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development according to many clients and several agencies.
It’s in direct contrast with the respectful treatment non-natives get when dealing with the Yukon government’s equivalent department, they say.
“In the past, I have left their office in tears,” says Bev (not her real name). “When we go to Indian Affairs we’re belittled, made to feel small. People aren’t given the chances they’re supposed to be given.”
Bev is relieved that she no longer has to deal with Indian Affairs.
Her husband is non-native so she deals with his Yukon government social worker who is more than happy to help. She’s been told about available programs to get out of poverty that Indian Affairs could have, but never did advise her about, like a program that allowed workers to keep 50 per cent of their income.
Twenty-two year old Trisha James is bewildered by the treatment she’s getting.
For years her aunt rented a suite in the basement of a Riverdale home. Indian Affairs paid the rent, but now the aunt has moved out and Trisha wants the suite, but Indian Affairs says no.
“I found a place to rent in the basement of a home. My parents rent the upstairs. INAC won’t pay for the rent because it is non-registered.”
A call to Whitehorse confirmed the rental suite is not legal, and INAC says all rental units must be legal for safety and liability reasons.
Yet I visited living quarters with no running water or toilet which, the tenant says, Indian Affairs is paying for.
James says she’s complained to the Yukon Member of Parliament about her situation. Larry Bagnell confirms he has received several complaints over the years from people who must deal with Indian Affairs for living expenses.
James’ mother is outraged at the stingy attitude of Indian Affairs, especially because self-governing First Nations now reimburse Ottawa for assistance provided to their citizens.
“They act as if it’s their own money! But the Carcoss Tagish First Nation will write a cheque to INAC for my daughter’s rent.”
Dealing with some social workers at the federal agency is Kafkaesque, says Barbara McInerney, executive director of Kaushee’s Place.
“When an aboriginal woman goes to INAC they often deny the funds, like moving expenses,” she says. “So we go to YTG and they show us the act that says INAC is supposed to pay. We take it back to INAC. They say no. We get a YTG worker to call INAC. INAC says, ‘Oh, we never dealt with this before.’
“If you didn’t need a drink before you started the process, you sure do after!
“They ask prying questions about relationships and why the woman ended up at the transition house. White people don’t have to go through that!”
Indian Affairs social workers are often disrespectful and there is no formal appeal process for their seemingly inconsistent decisions, says Charlotte Hrenchuk of the Yukon Status of Women Council.
Kaushee’s has written formal complaints to Indian Affairs that they are often not following their own policies, but McInerney says they’re given the run-around in response.
This reporter spent three days trying to get answers. There is no listing in the phonebook for the Indian Affairs office in Whitehorse. A toll-free number gets you to a bureaucrat in Ottawa who cannot give the Whitehorse number.
With more digging, I reached media relations people who were friendly, but I was bounced back and forth between spokespersons in Ottawa and Whitehorse. At one point, an Ottawa spokesperson simply recited federal housing dollars for the North, including Nunavut. Not at all what was asked.
Eventually I reached Dionne Savill, the acting director of Strategic Investment, which is involved with client services. Savill is surprised by the complaints.
“I have never heard these complaints from a client,” she says. “Our guiding principle is to treat all clients with respect. In general, we follow the rates and policies of YTG.”
Meanwhile at ground level, at the Salvation Army soup kitchen several men tell me they don’t bother applying for a place to live because they know they’ll be turned down. They manage to survive at the shelter and by couch-surfing.
McInerney is not surprised.
“Dignity is the real issue. I can believe some people choose to be homeless because they can preserve their dignity” says McInerney.
All of this was once unbelievable to a non-native couple who fostered two aboriginal children into adulthood.
But when they dealt with social workers at Indian Affairs, they were astounded at the rudeness towards their daughter with FASD.
Fed up with the disrespect, the father asked the Indian Affairs official, “What can we do to make our daughter white so she doesn’t have to be treated this way?”
Anyone who feels they’ve been treated unfairly by Indian Affairs is asked to contact Roxanne Livingstone by leaving a message at Yukon News, 667-6285.
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance
journalist who lives in Whitehorse.