03/06/2013 12:28 EST | Updated 05/06/2013 05:12 EDT

$6,600 to get SIN? Arctic dwellers fight social insurance number changes

The federal government is scrambling to address recent changes to the way citizens must apply for social insurance numbers that Arctic politicians say would cost northerners thousands of dollars.

"It's a policy change that doesn't reflect the needs of small communities," said Ron Elliott, a Nunavut MLA who represents several High Arctic communities.

In December, the federal government changed the rules so people applying for SIN cards can no longer do so by mail. They now must show up in person at Service Canada offices to get the cards.

Nunavut has only three such offices — in Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay. Nunavut has 28 far-flung communities, none of them connected by road.

"We're now calling it Canada Disservice," said Marty Kuluguqtuq, a resident of Grise Fiord, who figures it would cost him $6,600 in airfare and require a week-long journey to Iqaluit to register his six-year-old daughter.

"We'd rather have her on the system sooner than later."

He's probably not the only one. Kuluguqtuq, the hamlet's assistant administrator, says more than half of Grise Fiord's population of 140 is under 18.

Elliott wonders why the mail is no longer good enough. He points out that passports are still issued that way and Canadians living outside Canada can apply for SIN cards through the post.

"The reality of the policy change that they made was that it's actually more inconvenient for someone within Canada to travel from their home community to a Service Canada outlet," Elliott said.

Officials from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada called the problem a "miscommunication."

They said in an email to The Canadian Press that people from remote communities still will be able to mail in their applications and that the department's website was being updated Wednesday to reflect that.

"If someone cannot access a Service Canada office in person because of exceptional circumstances, alternative arrangements will be made for their application," said a two-sentence response from the department.

Elliott said that's not what he was told. And when he checked with Iqaluit's Service Canada office on Wednesday, staff there confirmed his understanding that applicants would have to show up in person.

Emily Woods, spokeswoman for Premier Eva Aariak, said that was also the information federal officials conveyed in a meeting as recently as last Friday.

"The premier shares Ron Elliott's concern that the new government of Canada rule does not take into consideration the unique nature of our communities," said Woods. "All Canadians deserve the same quality of service regardless of where they live."

Woods said a reconsideration would be welcomed.

The problem, so far, appears to be unique to Nunavut. Government spokespeople from the other Arctic territories say it hasn't arisen for them. They point out the great majority of their communities have road connections to larger centres.

Elliott said it's another example of policies that work in downtown Toronto but not in the North. He added that it's also a barrier to joining the work force, something Nunavut doesn't need.

"Most people don't get frustrated until they realize they've lost their card or they need one and they want to get a job," he said.

"People have been held back because there are no jobs. I don't want them held back because they don't have a SIN."

Kuluguqtuq wonders why it's now so hard to get a card for his youngest daughter when all her older sister had to do was mail off an application.

"It's something that is a right for all Canadians," he said.