Nunavut needs a new social contract
"Those at the top are doing better and those at the bottom are doing worse."
Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq’s many detractors enjoyed a delightful month last November.
Their most pleasurable moments likely occurred after the airing of a televised documentary containing footage of people foraging for food at the Rankin Inlet dump. Some of that criticism was fair and some of it was unfair.
But during the week that followed, Aglukkaq made it easy for her critics to pick on her.
She denied the obvious. It’s common knowledge that people in Nunavut, poor and not so poor, have been picking through dumps since the 1950s, and continue to do so, in search of building materials, machine parts and food. Lesson learned: don’t deny the obvious.
The fun didn’t stop there. Her critics also got to taunt her government over the Auditor General of Canada’s unflattering review of Nutrition North Canada, which also appeared that week. She’s not the minister responsible for that program, of course. But as the Conservative party’s political boss for the three northern territories, she gets to carry a hefty share of the shame.
All this produced an entertaining diversion, an irresistible opportunity to torment a prominent Nunavut bigshot.
And nearly all of it was meaningless.
That’s because Nunavut’s core problem is much bigger than a silly grudge match over who said what to whom in a phone call. It’s also a waste of time and energy to obsess over high prices. They’re here to stay and there’s nothing that governments or anyone else can do to change that. Nunavut needs a new social contract: a root and branch reform of all its social programs that encourages more people to work and to keep what they earn instead of having it clawed back or taxed.
For those who can’t work, which includes the large numbers of people who are chronically unemployable, it means putting more cash into their hands without removing the incentive to work when jobs are available. And it must also include a transformation of the territory’s failing school system into a tool for poverty reduction. If Nunavut’s farcical attendance and graduation rates aren’t fixed, all other efforts to combat poverty and inequality will fail.
There are two Nunavuts. One group, representing more than half the population, is poor and deprived, excluded from the economic growth the territory has enjoyed over the past three or four years. Many, though not all, live in small hamlets. Trapped by long-term structural unemployment and a dysfunctional school system, they face a bleak future: excluded, marginalized and too often forgotten.
The other Nunavut is affluent and comfortable. This group enjoys rising incomes, increasing net worth and expanding opportunities. Most of these people are located in Iqaluit and some of the larger communities.
The result? Those at the top are doing better and those at the bottom are doing worse. And the income gap that divides these two groups is worsening, threatening the cohesion of Nunavut society for many years to come.
You can find the evidence for this inside the 2013 Nunavut Economic Outlook document, released about a year ago.
“Together, the families that are falling further and further behind and those that are doing better and better are widening the gap between rich and poor,” the report’s authors said.
For example, the report found that about 5,000 Nunavummiut, 16 per cent of the territory’s population, rank among the top one-tenth of Canadian wage earners.
About half of these affluent Nunavut residents live in Iqaluit, where in 2010, 13 per cent of tax filers over the age of 15 reported annual incomes greater than $100,000 a year.
It’s because of these kinds of wage-earners that average incomes in Nunavut are now the fourth highest in the country.
But outside Iqaluit, it’s a different story, the Economic Outlook report’s authors found. Outside Iqaluit, the number of tax filers reporting incomes greater than $100,000 stood at only four per cent. And outside Iqaluit, nearly half of all 2010 tax filers — 48 per cent — reported incomes of less than $20,000 a year.
The worst indicator of Nunavut’s growing inequality is this: median income. In 2010, it stood at only $24,868. This means half of all tax filers reported incomes below that figure.
It’s no wonder so many people in Nunavut are raging about high prices. And it’s no wonder so many people suffer from hunger and poor diets. Nunavut’s biggest welfare program, social housing, which costs more than $180 million a year, helps to take the edge off some of that suffering through highly subsidized rents for those who are fortunate enough to get a unit.
But if you’re renting a low-cost social housing unit in a community where you can’t find a job, moving somewhere else to get a job presents a serious risk — because you can’t take your housing unit with you.
For this, and other reasons, including the high cost of air transportation, too many poor people in Nunavut are imprisoned inside their own communities. They suffer from the kind of poverty that, in itself, is a major cause of even more poverty.
The act of demonizing the Conservative government offers irresistible pleasures.
But scapegoating the Tories won’t fix the core problems. It’s the Government of Nunavut that operates nearly all the territory’s social programs and decides how to spend Ottawa’s transfer money. And it’s the GN that must be held accountable for any failure to respond to inequality in Nunavut. JB