Yukon freezing out social assistance recipients, says chief

The Liard First Nation chief wants the community to judge the Yukon Party government on its frozen social assistance rates and the freezing houses…

The Liard First Nation chief wants the community to judge the Yukon Party government on its frozen social assistance rates and the freezing houses that often creates.

“With rising fuel costs, particularly in the winter months, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for low-income families and those that must rely on social assistance to make ends meet and survive,” said chief Liard McMillan in an interview Tuesday.

Research by the First Nation — located close to Premier Dennis Fentie’s powerbase in Watson Lake — reveals social assistance rates in the Yukon have not increased in more than 15 years, said McMillan.

As a result, First Nation citizens, especially elders and single mothers, are confronted with empty pockets and bellies, he said.

“When faced with a choice between feeding themselves and putting fuel into the furnaces to heat their homes, people choose the first option,” said McMillan.

“Therefore, homes are freezing up.”

The price of a barrel of crude oil, which dictates home heating oil prices, has increased from $25 USD per barrel in September 2003 to more than $78 USD per barrel this year before falling slightly of late.

During winter months, a First Nations single mother of one child in Watson Lake qualifies for a maximum of $350 a month for food, $525 for rent, $425 for utilities and $129 for incidental costs, said officials with Indian and Northern Affairs.

The Liard First Nation was forced to repair four houses that literally froze last winter, adding to its financial burden, said McMillan.

On average, the cost to fix burst pipes and sewers in a frozen house is between $1,500 and $2,000, he explained.

There are about 150 households in the community.

McMillan has been pushing for social assistance rates to be increased by the Yukon government for years because the positive effects would be mirrored for First Nations people.

“It’s my understanding … that the social assistance rates for First Nations under Indian Affairs, by law, must match that of the Yukon’s,” he said.

Liard First Nation, which has not signed a land claim or self-government agreement with Ottawa, has sent several letters to the Yukon government but little has come of the correspondence, added McMillan.

“They haven’t really provided us with a very favourable response, or a commitment to deal with the issue,” he said.

McMillan feels the economic boom in Whitehorse is fueled by federal dollars that aren’t trickling down to people in the communities who need them the most.

“My understanding there was $50 million in additional dollars allocated to the Yukon through Health Canada and yet we’re still faced with not being able to meet the basic needs of individuals, particularly single mothers and elders in our communities,” he said.

But a campaigning Fentie dismissed McMillan’s comments as negligible.

“I see this as partisan politics and I’m not worried at all,” said Fentie on Wednesday morning.

“Quite the opposite, things are going very well for me and the First Nations community.

“There is another order of government that is the primary government responsible for the Liard First Nation, and that is the federal government.”

The Yukon government has no knowledge of McMillan’s complaints and Fentie has no worries about it, he said.

“He’ll do what he’s going to do.”

The Yukon Party government has a “long list” of achievements with the Liard First Nation, said Fentie, noting it gave it land for its administration building.

With files from Graeme McElheran.