This is page numbers 2951 - 2988 of the Hansard for the 19th Assembly, 2nd Session. The original version can be accessed on the Legislative Assembly's website or by contacting the Legislative Assembly Library. The word of the day was public.

Topics

Kevin O'Reilly

Kevin O'Reilly Frame Lake

Merci, Monsieur le President. Look, I'm confused at the best of times, and it's been a long day, but my understanding is that seniors are seeing the NWT senior supplement -- they see it being reduced if they took CERB payments. So last year during the global pandemic, this government declared an exemption period during which some forms of assistance would not be counted as unearned income in calculating benefits. These exemptions were in place April 1 to October 31st. In some cases, right up to December 31st.

Can the Minister tell us what the status is of those exemptions and how they impact any clawbacks of the NWT seniors benefit? Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.

I will send the Minister the questions ahead of time. Thanks.

R.J. Simpson

R.J. Simpson Hay River North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. There are no claw backs of the NWT Senior Citizens Supplementary Benefit. There's no claw backs from what I understand of any federal benefits such as Old Age Security or Guaranteed Income Supplement.

What's happening is that seniors who received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit last year had incomes greater than the threshold to receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement. And so this year's Guaranteed Income Supplement eligibility is based last year's income. And if the CERB program increased your income over that threshold, you no longer receive GIS or you've seen it reduced. Our benefit that we deliver has not been reduced. It's either you get it, or you don't get it. So I want to clear that up for the Member.

Last year, the Member's correct, the income assistance program exempted around $10 million worth of benefits, so around $7.8 million worth of CERB. The rest is gifts from family members, supports from Indigenous governments or non-profits. And those have all ended.

There was a one-time GST payment, one-time Old Age Security payment. But that all happened in 2020, and they would all -- they would count against -- or count as income in 2020 when assessing this year's eligibility for GIS. Thank you.

Kevin O'Reilly

Kevin O'Reilly Frame Lake

Merci, Monsieur le President. I want to thank the Minister for that very eloquent explanation that I couldn't get out very easily. So clawbacks might not be the best term, but that's what the seniors are calling them. What's happening, of course, is that they're getting dinged for taking the CERB payment.

So what steps can the Minister take to not link the NWT seniors supplement to GIS and allow seniors to access this benefit for the 2020 tax year. Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.

R.J. Simpson

R.J. Simpson Hay River North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And from what I understand, if people are seeing a reduction in their GIS because they received CERB, they would still receive more money overall; albeit it would have been in the last fiscal year and isn't necessarily much good to people in this fiscal year.

The NWT Senior Citizens Supplementary Benefit is a legislated program, and there is -- the only way to do what the Member is requesting is to change the legislation, and if we were to do that, that change wouldn't happen until late next year. So I don't think that is likely.

What we can do, though, those seniors who are suffering financial hardship and who are eligible, can apply for income assistance. And I know there are -- you know, people don't want to apply for income assistance. But it's a program to help people in those situations. I know there are negative connotations with it, but the fact is it is if you can't pay your rent, we want to help you pay your rent; if you can't pay your heat, we want to help you pay your heat. That's what the program is there for. So if people are suffering financial hardship, I encourage them to apply through the income assistance program. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Kevin O'Reilly

Kevin O'Reilly Frame Lake

Merci, Monsieur le President. I want to thank the Minister for that. I think what he was saying to me there was almost code for a private Member's bill. But I did pretty good in the last Assembly. We'll see if it happens in this one.

So, but I'd understood that this government is doing some sort of review on income support systems for seniors. Can the Minister give us an update on that work and a timeline as well. Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.

R.J. Simpson

R.J. Simpson Hay River North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And the Member is correct. We are looking at the income assistance program, not just for seniors, but one of the key changes we want to make is tailoring a program for seniors and persons with disabilities, essentially people who have aged out of the workforce, we know aren't going to be in the workforce and shouldn't have to meet the same requirements as others. So that work is well underway.

As with everything, you know, things haven't gone as quickly as we would hope, but for the most part, it is on track. This year there was a lot of preliminary work done, looking at our programs, looking at programs in other jurisdictions, doing literature reviews. There has been surveys on productive choices. And that information is being put together. And I haven't even seen that yet, but I look forward to sharing this with the standing committee when the opportunity arises.

An RFP went out for the engagement piece of this. And so in the coming months in the new year, there will be a public engagement.

And I know we are in the time of COVID, but there are some things that we can do virtually that are easier to do virtually, and there's some types of engagement we want to do more in person. So I've asked the department to ensure that we are reaching the people we need to reach when we go to engage, because not everyone has a computer, not everyone's computer savvy.

So that part is beginning in the new year, and by April of 2023, we hope to have the program rolled out. And those who are eligible to be transitioned into the new program for seniors and persons with disabilities, we hope to have them transferred by that date. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Minister. Oral questions. Member for Yellowknife North.

Oral Question 789-19(2): Nursing Issues
Oral Questions

November 23rd, 2021

Page 2966

Rylund Johnson

Rylund Johnson Yellowknife North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I know there's been a lot of discussion about nursing and health care staff today. I thank you for the Minister's answers. I think she has illustrated a lot of the problems we're facing well.

I guess I struggle as an MLA, and there seems to have been a breakdown of communication. I know the Minister directs the department, and the department directs an arm's-length health authority, and the health authority directs the hospital, and then there's the union and the local, and it just seems that at the end of the day, many of our nurses do not feel they are being listened to.

And I would like to hear what the Minister is doing to make sure that those lines of communication are flowing and that our nurses do feel that their concerns are ultimately being heard. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

Mahsi. Minister of Health and Social Services.

Julie Green

Julie Green Yellowknife Centre

Yes, thank you, Mr. Speaker, and thank you for that question. We are trying to get to the bottom of the issues that are making nurses unhappy. You know, I'm getting the same correspondence as the Member is. I'm aware of a number of issues that have been raised.

So to that end, the department started to do exit surveys with nurses who have left since January to try to determine why they left. Was it the work environment? Was it the workload? Was it the pay? Did somebody in their family get transferred to another location and they decided to leave? So we're trying to understand why people are leaving.

The other thing that we're doing that relates to the nurses who are still working for us is doing a survey. The Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut is currently administering a survey referenced by the MLA for Twin Lakes asking nurses about job satisfaction, about gaps that they see and how those could be filled and so on.

That survey is available now to nurses of all kinds and in all places in the NWT, and I would really encourage them to fill in this survey, take the time to fill in the survey -- I understand it's 15 to 20 minutes -- so that we can get a better grip on what kinds of issues are pushing people away and what kinds of things would pull them back in again.

At the end of the day, staff is everything to the delivery of health, and we are very fortunate to have good, loyal, well-trained staff. We need more of them. Thank you.

Rylund Johnson

Rylund Johnson Yellowknife North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Firstly, I just -- I checked Hansard, and I saw that a few Members and the Minister had raised the issue of exit surveys which we weren't previously doing in the spring, and I'm glad to hear we are now doing that.

I'm also happy to hear that we're doing this, there's a larger survey going on. I guess my concern, Mr. Speaker, is I think we can anticipate many of the things it'll say. It'll say they're burnt out. Staff tend to raise management concerns when they are surveyed. They're clearly going to raise some of the compensation concerns.

And I know that many of those areas we can't quite solve now. So I'm unsure if we get them in a survey, whether that changes. So I just want to hear what the Minister plans do with the results of the surveys and whether maybe this can be a tool to push us over the edge to take some of those actions. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Julie Green

Julie Green Yellowknife Centre

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, in this situation, it is infinitely preferable to keep a nurse we have than to try and hire a new one. You know, they are already established here; they understand the operating environment; they understand our electronic medical records system, and so on and so forth. We would like them to stay.

We offer very good professional development benefits and professional training opportunities and other things that are beyond salaries and within our control to incentivize nurses to stay and to take any additional training which may enhance their careers and their sense of job satisfaction.

I have heard people say that the work environment is the problem. I'm not clear what that means, and I'm looking forward to hearing what that means so that we can address whatever that is. I don't know if it's not enough staff on shift or whether it's scratchy relationships between the union and management, or what it is. This is something that I need to learn so that we can address those issues and encourage nurses to stay with us. Thank you.

Rylund Johnson

Rylund Johnson Yellowknife North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I thank the Minister for that answer. I've heard the Minister say that we have a new collective agreement with the UNW. We are unable to offer, you know, one specific profession a bonus. And I guess I don't quite understand where that resistance is coming from. I don't see how a union is going to refuse to allow its Members to get more compensation. I don't understand if that resistance is from the finance or the local or where that is coming from.

So I would welcome some enlightenment on that. But I guess the real question is can we give our current health care workers some sort of bonus or raise, Mr. Speaker.

Julie Green

Julie Green Yellowknife Centre

Yes, thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, the Union of Northern Workers represents nurses and the civil service in the NWT. In the summer, they ratified an agreement for 1.5 percent increase for two years this fiscal year, next fiscal year.

If we are going to offer more money to people to work, then we need to make the situation equitable. And at this point, we don't have a way to do that. Health is understaffed. But not only health. Education is very understaffed. There is a lot of gaps in teacher assignments in the Northwest Territories. Corrections officers are understaffed.

So the problem that we have is how to single out one occupation and incentivize them without taking into consideration that there may be other occupations where there's a shortage of staff, a competitive environment for staff.

And so at this point, there's no easy way around that. I will just say that in many jurisdictions, nurses have their own union to deal with their own issues, workplace issues, compensation, and so on. But that, so far, has not been a direction that's gone in the Northwest Territories. Thank you.

The Speaker

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Minister. Final supplementary, Member for Yellowknife North.

Rylund Johnson

Rylund Johnson Yellowknife North

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I guess I want to head off the potential of, you know, there's some debate about whether the UNW Act and the Public Service Agreement allows the nurses to form their own union, whether that's legal. There's a tension, I imagine, in the UNW of taking Members out of their union. I think there is possible options of instead of an own union, a separate collective agreement for nurses. But I really do not want to be here in two years where the situation is where the local is in a fight with the UNW who's in a fight with the Finance Minister, and we're in a very tense situation. And I know there are talks of year after year of organizing their own unions.

So I guess I want to ask the Minister are there conversations happening between the respective parties about possibility of their own collective agreement or just making sure if that happens, that it does not get really messy, because I think this could be a conversation that needs to happen now, Mr. Speaker.

Julie Green

Julie Green Yellowknife Centre

Yes, thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I'm not well-informed in this area at all about any efforts that have been made or are being made to create a separate union for the nurses or a separate bargaining unit.

Really, the relationship with the union is managed by the Department of Finance which has responsibility for human resources. And so in terms of those questions, my colleague, the Minister of Finance, would be more informed than myself. Thank you.

The Speaker

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Minister. Oral questions. Member for Monfwi.

Jane Weyallon Armstrong

Jane Weyallon Armstrong Monfwi

Masi. I have questions for the Department of Justice. So is the department aware of the difficulties in Tlicho region regarding the land administration systems and transferring ownership. What is the Minister and department doing to support the communities and address the problems. Masi.

The Speaker

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

Mahsi. Minister of Justice.

R.J. Simpson

R.J. Simpson Hay River North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The issues that the Member has raised, they occur all across the Northwest Territories. We have the Office of the Public Trustee, which manages the estates for persons who are deceased. They can often provide some advice. We have the Legal Aid Outreach Clinic, and the constituents can call that to perhaps get some advice or get pointed in the right direction. But the unfortunate reality is that often these things require a lawyer.

And I wish that we had a team of lawyers to send out to communities to deal with some of these issues or/and proactively deal with some of these issues. But outside of those resources that I've just mentioned, we don't have those available. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Jane Weyallon Armstrong

Jane Weyallon Armstrong Monfwi

I wasn't aware he was going to say that public trustee. But public trustee, they do not have the capacity.

So I'm just asking the Minister, can he commit to send a legal team from MACA to help our community government in Behchoko, Whatì, Gameti, and Wekweeti to address the outstanding land issues. Thank you.

R.J. Simpson

R.J. Simpson Hay River North

Thank you. No, I can't commit on behalf of another Minister, the Minister of MACA.

And you know, frankly, when we had one initiative in this government that required, you know, intensive use of a legal team, we had to add more positions to the budget because we don't have bodies to commit to issues like these. So I know that's not the answer the Member is looking for, but that's the only answer I have right now.

But I will have conversations with the Minister of MACA so that we can dig a little deeper into this. I'm happy to have further conversations with the Member as well to perhaps get a better sense of some of the specifics of these issues and see if we can start chipping away. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Jane Weyallon Armstrong

Jane Weyallon Armstrong Monfwi

Well, in the long run, only changes to the legislation, the Tlicho Community Government Act will fully address the problems with the land administration systems.

Will the Minister commit to working with his colleague, Minister of MACA, to consider bringing forward changes to the legislation in consultation with the communities. Thank you.

R.J. Simpson

R.J. Simpson Hay River North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And that's out of my jurisdiction. Justice wouldn't really have a role in that, other than, you know, providing the legal services that would then be billed back to MACA. But I can -- obviously the Minister has just heard that. I can have a further conversation. And perhaps, you know -- I see the -- the Member looks like she has a legal team flanking her with lawyers on each side that might be able to assist with some of her issues as well. I know that Members do provide some legal services in the communities, and so maybe that's another option. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.