Family in Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., says they're 'gonna go hungry' with income assistance cut

Christopher Dryneck and his family in Behchokǫ, N.W.T., are worried about how they'll get by without income assistance. Dryneck says the support was cut after he struggled to provide the proper paperwork.

Christopher Dryneck, who is blind, says he worries for his family

Christopher Dryneck says
Christopher Dryneck, right, with his wife and daughter. Dryneck says the family's income support was cut after they struggled to provide some needed paperwork. (Robert Holden/CBC)

Christopher Dryneck is in Edmonton while his 12-year-old daughter, who is disabled, waits for surgery. 

While a trip like this might seem stressful, Dryneck says the real stress begins when they return home to Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T. 

Dryneck has been blind since birth. His wife Sharon faces additional challenges from being unable to read or write.

He says a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings led to his family recently being cut off income support. Dryneck said neither he nor his wife are able to work, meaning they rely completely on income assistance.

"I was shocked," he said. "I can't go out and get a job for them, I can't work and I can't go hunting. 

"We're gonna go hungry." 

Dryneck said his problems began when the N.W.T. income assistance office in Yellowknife told him he was being investigated for not declaring income for 2023.

He said he was told if he couldn't produce the proper paperwork, his support was at risk of being cut off. 

Dryneck said he's since learned more about what documents are needed for income assistance, and believes they were requesting a T4 slip. But he says he can't recall entirely, attributing his confusion to his poor education. 

"I don't know what 'declared' even means," he said. "They explained it to us but we don't know what it means, me and my wife have no education."

Dryneck said his father pulled him out of school in the third grade due to his blindness. His education, after that, was on the land.  

Dryneck said he was reminded by the income assistance office that his wife worked as a janitor for the Tłı̨chǫ government a handful of times in Behchokǫ̀ during 2023. He said even though their income assistance funding typically covers all of their costs, the family decided at the time they could use the extra money.

behchoko skyline
Behchoko, N.W.T., in 2020. Dryneck says the cost of living in the community is high. (Walter Strong/CBC)

In order to get the needed paperwork to the income assistance office, Dryneck said his family was able to convince a friend to transport them to Yellowknife where they were able to process paperwork in a mad dash to ensure no deadlines were missed.

Upon arriving home, Dryneck said he received a call from income support saying the paperwork was incomplete. 

Exasperated, and unable to find a ride back into Yellowknife, Dryneck says he was cut off shortly after.

Nowhere to turn

Dryneck and his family live in a house he inherited from his parents.

As far as family goes, he said there's no money to spare. His siblings have multiple children, and the cost of living is high in Behchokǫ. 

Dryneck said the Tłı̨chǫ government can't help him because his situation falls outside its funding guidelines. He said he was also told his application for funding through Jordan's Principle would take one to two months to process.

CBC News reached out to Behchokǫ Chief Clifford Daniels, but didn't receive a response. 

Jane Weyallon Armstrong, MLA for Monfwi, said Dryneck's situation is very common in Behchokǫ. 

"It's been going on far too long. It's only recently this has really been talked about," she said.

Weyallon Armstrong declined to comment when asked what options someone like Christopher Dryneck has available to them in the community, but said she's working in the legislature to address the issue.

"I can't speak for a lot of who he's contacted," she said. "I do think there's not enough programs here in the community for disabilities — everything is based in Yellowknife.

"There's a lot of people here who have fallen through the cracks."

A portrait of a serious woman.
'There's not enough programs here in the community for disabilities,' said Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong. (Natalie Pressman/CBC)

Weyallon Armstrong said she's been working with the territory's minister of education, culture and employment to see that residents like Dryneck are granted disability benefits regardless of work history.

Behchokǫ has faced a housing crisis in recent years, with multiple residents experiencing homelessness or issues related to substandard housing. 

Changes coming to income assistance program

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel for Dryneck, when he's allowed to reapply for income assistance in three months.

The income assistance office with the N.W.T. government is currently planning changes to its program for seniors and people with disabilities. 

The department told CBC News in an email the new program will require less documentation, and users will apply yearly instead of monthly.

The new program is expected to launch in summer 2024.

In an email, spokesperson Briony Grabke of the Department of Education, Culture and Employment said the department has "client navigators" that can help accommodate applicants, but income assistance applications need a signature.

"If the applicant is unable to go to the office, the client navigator can complete the application over the phone and send it to the applicant for signature. These documents can then be mailed, emailed, faxed, or dropped off to the office by a family member, friend or advocate," Grabke wrote. 

Dryneck says he was recently prescribed sleeping pills due to stress from the situation.

His wife is currently looking for work, but employment opportunities can be difficult to find in the community under her circumstances. She hopes she can find enough hours to sustain the family while also being able to care for their daughter.

"I thought this would never happen to me," Dryneck said. "But this is where I am right now."


Robert Holden is a videojournalist with CBC North. He lives in Yellowknife.