N.W.T. MLAs support motion to forgive elders' mortgage and rental debt

Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong introduced the motion on debt forgiveness.
Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong introduced the motion on debt forgiveness.

Regular MLAs passed a motion Wednesday in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly to forgive debt held by elders with mortgages and rental arrears owed to Housing NWT — but it's not clear whether the policy will ever go into effect.

Applause was heard throughout the legislature Wednesday afternoon as the motion titled "Reconciliatory review of Housing NWT's collection approach" introduced by Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong was passed with support from all nine regular MLAs present.

"This is causing a lot of hardship for our vulnerable," Weyallon Armstrong said.

The motion asked Housing NWT to forgive arrears that cannot be collected for elders and residential school survivors, while also calling the territorial government to immediately pause garnishing elders' pensions to pay for arrears and to develop a collections policy and strategy going forward.

While the motion was supported by the majority of MLAs and passed, cabinet members abstained from voting.

Cabinet now has 120 days to respond.

The response from the government can be to take the action requested, take no action or set out some other action, a spokesperson with the Legislative Assembly explained in an emailed statement.

"I am supporting this motion as presented to stop all the garnishment from pensions and so all debts get forgiven," Weyallon Armstrong said.

Housing NWT says it doesn't garnish pensions

In response to the motion, a Housing NWT representative said that "Housing NWT does not garnish pensions."

Housing NWT has a policy that lists several means of collecting debt including garnishment, foreclosure and a collection agency. The policy also has a section on debt forgiveness saying if the collection unit cannot collect, forgiveness may be recommended.

Curtis Mandeville/CBC
Curtis Mandeville/CBC

During the discussion, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly estimated the arrears debts to stand at $13 million for current and former tenants, and said as he understood it, about "half of that amount would be covered by the motion."

Updated numbers from Housing NWT show that the total arrears debt was $16.5 million as of March 8 — with $4.9 million in mortgage arrears and $11.6 million in rental arrears.

'True act of reconciliation'

In advancing the motion, several MLAs spoke to the importance of forgiving debts as a matter of reconciliation.

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos said she supported the motion "150 per cent" as this is not the first time she stood up in the house to talk about "lack of compassion by NWT Housing."

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby called the motion a "true act of reconciliation," while noting the economic benefits of forgiving debts.

"Anytime that you're getting people out of debt, the money that they would be paying or spending on loans or interest will now come back into the community and our economy," Nokleby said

Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada
Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson was critical of the cost elders are paying for housing.

"Those houses were paid 10 times over by now and the state of those houses are not worth the price that we're paying," Jacobson said.

Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland shared stories from communities including an anecdote about elders living in their homes for their entire lives who one day received a bill for arrears.

"This policy was changed over the life of this Assembly but those arrears were not addressed and mitigated by the housing corporation," she said.

Cleveland said arrears can create "extreme hardship," stressing that it's up to Housing NWT to have "prudent management" when it comes to managing arrears, rents and policies.

"They need to not only understand why people have rent," she said, "but also be able to mitigate why people have arrears and address that properly."