Nunavut minister takes hit for unused seniors subsidy

GN budget for senior's fuel subsidy annually underspent by half

By STEVE DUCHARME

Johnny Mike, acting family services minister, could not say what's done with the unspent senior's fuel subsidy budget but that the program is currently being reviewed. (PHOTO BY LISA GREGOIRE)


Johnny Mike, acting family services minister, could not say what’s done with the unspent senior’s fuel subsidy budget but that the program is currently being reviewed. (PHOTO BY LISA GREGOIRE)

Nunavut seniors seeking subsidies for household fuel costs are either unaware of a territorial government program to assist them, ineligible, or too baffled by red tape to apply.

That much seems clear from a series of statements made by Nunavut’s acting minister of family services, Johnny Mike, March 16 at the Nunavut Legislative Assembly.

“The Nunavut government has not fully spent the [senior] fuel subsidy program’s annual budget in recent years,” Mike said in reply to questions first posed March 7 by South Baffin MLA David Joanasie.

George Kuksuk, the minister for family services, has been mostly absent with cause from the winter sitting so Mike has been handling the file in his place.

According to figures provided by Mike, the $478,000 annual budget for the GN’s senior fuel subsidy has repeatedly been underspent.

In fact, in past two fiscal years, only slightly more than half of the budget was used, Mike said: $250,849 in 2014 and $289,524 in 2015.

And only 108 seniors tapped into the program in 2015, Mike added.

Joanasie asked Mike why more seniors aren’t taking advantage of the subsidy. Due to the high cost of living in the North, the additional funds could mean the difference between a comfortable winter and barely squeaking by, he said.

“There are income support workers and social workers in the communities that are responsible for income support so that’s how I can respond to your question,” Mike said.

For the GN’s part, the income ceiling for eligibility in the program has been raised to $100,000.

But restrictions were added for those earning between $75,000 and $100,000, cutting the fuel subsidy in half for some applicants.

That ceiling has caused Nunatsiaq News readers to complain about unfairness.

Mike added that other forms of income support also disqualified seniors from applying for the subsidy.

“I will have to look into that,” Mike said.

Baker Lake MLA Simeon Mikkungwak picked up the inquiry after Joanasie ended his questioning.

“It’s evident in Baker Lake that some seniors are eligible for the program, but some of the elders are under income support and during the wintertime, the support is insufficient,” Mikkungwak stated.

“Is there a criteria or a cap on how much fuel subsidy the seniors can receive?”

“Yes,” replied Mike. “In 2015, the Department of Family Services increased the subsidy to 3500 litres for Nunavummiut who receive support.”

But Mike was unable to confirm at the time if that increase helped in any way.

Mikkungwak pressed the minister on what family services has done with the leftover fuel subsidy budget from year to year.

Mike answered that the program is currently under review, and that he expects amendments will follow after that process.

“I can only respond to make sure that it will be adequate for Nunavummiut,” he said.

Mike reiterated the requirements for applicants.

“If they are Nunavummiut residents and if they are over the age of 60 they can apply for this program. If they are homeowners and reside in the building and as long as they are not receiving income support,” he said.

March 16 marked the end of the Nunavut legislature’s winter sitting.

Nunavut MLAs will return to their constituencies until the legislature’s spring session begins in Iqaluit. That’s scheduled to run from May 30 to June 8.

Several issues scheduled for the winter sitting have also been deferred to the spring sitting for consideration.

Those include the annual report on poverty reduction, as well as a number of documents related to human resources.

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