The NWT Disabilities Council received recognition from the federal government last week for its advocacy for people with disabilities.

The federal Department of Employment and Social Development announced on Aug. 13 that the council earned a Canada Voluntary Award — Ottawa’s annual national and regional awards for volunteers, non-profits, social enterprises and businesses. The awards recognize community groups that improve the well-being of individuals, families and their communities.

The Yellowknife-based council as heralded as a social innovator for the British Columbia and North region in 2020.

Along with the award, the organization will receive a $5,000 grant.

Denise McKee, executive director with the NWT Disabilities Council, said that it was the first time the organization received such national attention.

“We were nominated by someone in the community for our work related to the Day Centre and Sobering Centre and our overall work for the Northwest Territories within communities,” she said, noting the organization’s work in life support, intervention, respite and educational and information sharing about disabilities awareness.

A lot of focus was paid to the organization’s management of the 5111-50 Street facility for street vulnerable people, who have a large Indigenous representation. Since October 2019, the council has worked as part of a Good Neighbour Committee made up of the RCMP and neighbouring businesses and organizations to bring safety and security downtown.

The day centre portion of the facility provides free meals and access to showers and laundry, while the sobering centre provides a safe place for people dealing with addictions.

“The two centres are open 24/7 and serve over 450 people per year,” according to the department’s award biography. “The staff work with medics, health and social services and the police to provide help to the clients. This teamwork has led to fewer hospital visits and arrests.”

McKee said some of the recognition was also tied to the council’s work in small NWT communities like information sharing about services for people with disabilities.

According to an Aug. 13 news release from the federal department, there were 289 award nominations across the 21 national and regional categories submitted between Aug. 6 to Sept. 30, 2020.

“It is a pretty prestigious award,” McKee said. “We are very excited that we were considered and to be recipients by a national selection committee was really exciting for our organization and board. I think it was especially nice for our workers who are so diligent and really dedicated to providing services.”

Disabilities and labour

The federal department’s awards announcement came on the same day that federal minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough announced $7.5 million for the Rick Hansen Foundation to assist with training persons with disabilities and to create a more inclusive workforce.

McKee said the money is welcome post-pandemic, especially through a disabilities-led organization like the Rick Hansen Foundation, as workers with disabilities try to return to work life.

“Coming out of the pandemic, people with disabilities will experience underemployment or unemployment that will be long-term just because the markets are so tenuous right now,” she said, adding that traditional barriers remain for people with disabilities accessing work. “We think that workplaces being able to accommodate for pan-disabilities is really essential, which means not just physical disabilities but those that are both visible and non-visible. The most marginalized group with disabilities are people that have cognitive or intellectual disabilities that have previously been marginalized to a greater degree.”

An Aug. 13 news release from the federal department states that the money will allow the Hansen Foundation to create a new standardized profession for the labour market called “accessibility professionals,” which will increase expertise and information on building accessible work spaces to support people with disabilities.

Employers will have access to funding to create strategies to attract and retain skilled workers and spend more money on training and human resources tools.

McKee said funding supports of this type in Northern workplaces are needed.

“We also hope that this (funding announcement) leads to the development of support and a Northern strategy which are extremely necessary,” she said. “NGOs and small business that can employ people with disabilities, and even some larger sectors, don’t have the necessary infrastructure to get information about how they can break down myths about employing people with disabilities and see that it is good for business.”

She said people with disabilities in the North face more barriers accessing work because many tend to live in small, isolated communities with high unemployment and a higher cost of living.

The federal government is developing a Disability Inclusion Action Plan, announced during last year’s Speech to the Throne, that will focus on improving conditions for Canadian disabled workers. Part of that plan is to include a Canada disability benefit, which McKee said she hopes will take into consideration Northern realities of income requirements and the higher cost of living than southern jurisdictions.

“The cost of living and wages have to be considered separately than somewhere like the East Coast, where the threshold of an income would be lower and where it would be be unattainable to meet that same threshold in the NWT,” she said.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. A through and through "County boy" from Prince Edward County, Ont., Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin...

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