Nobody deserves the degradation that comes with working a full-time job and making less than a living wage.
Existing at the bottom of the income scale, working hard but not making enough to pay the bills, being the forgotten victims of the economic and social system — it can be soul-crushing.
That is especially true in the Northwest Territories, which enjoys some of the highest wages in the country. Our strong resource-based economy teeming with diamonds, oil and gas, paired with difficulties getting people to move to this remote vastness means employers have to pay top dollar for the workers they want.
According to statistics released by the Conference Board of Canada, the territory’s income per capita in 2016 was $88,252, the highest in Canada. That’s almost triple the amount paid to Prince Edward Islanders, the most poorly paid Canadians, who made a comparatively paltry average of $31,947.
But not all us of are enjoying this prosperity. If you aren’t working in a mine or for the government, chances are you find the cost of living in this beautiful subarctic paradise to be staggering. Yellowknife tenants pay the highest average rent in Canada and NWT residents pay the highest costs of electricity in the country.
There is a growing income gap between the haves and the have-nots, according to the Northwest Territories Poverty Progress Profile. In 2016, it reported that 19.3 per cent of NWT residents struggle with low income.
While we are dealing with our own issues north of 60, provinces like Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia are making efforts to help their working poor by raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That’s much more than the minimum wage in the Northwest Territories, which will be increased by 96 cents to $13.46 an hour April 1.
Yes, the move will help a few people by ensuring more working Northerners share in the prosperity of our territory. But up here, legislating the minimum wage may not be an effective tool for redistributing wealth.
First, there are very few folks making minimum wage in the NWT. Andy Bevan, assistant deputy minister of Education, Culture and Employment, has reported that minimum wage workers number about 700 in the territory.
Second, workers in Yellowknife would need to be paid about $22 an hour to earn a living wage, according to the social justice coalition Alternatives North, and increasing the minimum wage to that amount could have unintended consequences.
A 96-cent raise is one thing. The market can absorb that and probably a bit more. But increasing minimum wage by almost $10 to $22 an hour would undoubtedly wreak havoc on our economy.
As such, the move to push minimum wage up April 1 should be tepidly applauded.
It is a move that needs to go in hand with addressing the primary causes of poverty in the NWT, which are housing shortages, poor education and rising alcohol and substance abuse.
The government should work on the five pillars of its Anti-Poverty Action Plan. That means more funding for poverty-reduction initiatives that ensure food security and affordable housing and childcare, as well as dealing with issues surrounding healthy living, mental health and addictions.