Monday, November 29, 2010

WINTER IS COMING ... So is Christmas

Winter is coming in Niagara.

We haven't had much of the "white stuff" (or snow) yet, although other parts of Ontario have already had their first snowfall or maybe their second or third by now.

At this time of the year in my region, Out of the Cold revs up its engines and our Public Health Department issues weather warnings when the mercury is dipping too low to bear. Stores have been chiming in for Christmas since the first of July, but are really chiming it in now ... in mid-November, the annual Tree of Lights celebration takes place with the Mayor pressing the button to light up City Hall like a flame. I always wondered what would happen if the Mayor ever pressed that button and nothing happened.

Television begins to show recurrent seasonal movies and holiday themed episodes of regular series' like House, Boston Legal, etc. All day Sunday, movies showed Santa here, Santa there, and commercial jingles everywhere. In the papers, at least one or two writers beg for people to put Christ back into Christmas. I am always puzzled when people say this.

That only makes me laugh as it is known fact that Christmas does not originate from the Bible or even Christianity itself. It actually has Pagan roots. Early Christians compromised with the Pagan leaders of the day to accommodate their celebration of "Saturnalia" with the timing of "Christmas", or as determined, the birth of Christ, which has been never specified or dated anywhere in any Bible.

To prove my point, if Christmas was a Christian holiday, how come virtually everybody, including representatives of the Kitchen Sink, celebrate it - Christian or not? Holiday decorations are wrapped around public buildings, seasonal ornaments are brought out to adorn reception areas and Christmas lights light up the sky by our City Hall. In recognition that Canada is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, at least the powers that be have included signs that represent Eid for the Muslims, Diwali for the Hindu, Hanukkah for the Jewish community, as well as Christmas for everybody else, it seems.

A couple years ago, somebody created a major media flap about a Christmas tree that was on display in a courthouse and later removed by the allegedly "politically correct" administration. The reason for its removal was that some Muslims might be offended. Personally, I have yet to meet a Muslim that even cares about where Christmas trees are displayed. However, this whole perception of who will and will not get offended by the ubiquitous Christmas symbols is a moot point ... I am not terribly religious myself, but if people want to celebrate Christmas as a religious rite or use it as excuse to get drunk, I could care less.

I enjoy Christmas only because it gives me a much needed break. In my family, we do decorate our home, enjoy some eggnog and exchange some gifts, but that is not the highlight of what we do during the holidays. Holidays for me is family time. Or for those who are not fortunate to have family, a time to spend with friends or to share with others. I have spent some Christmases in the past serving the homeless and lonely a Christmas meal, or joining a group of people for drinks and relaxation. A few times, all I did was eat and sleep.

Unfortunately, however, Christmas has become an occasion to further divide the social classes between the "haves" and "have nots". A friend of mine once stated this is when all the hypocrisy comes alive. Indeed, many people suddenly seem so damned caring at Christmas time, while they turn their noses down at the same people on the other 364 days of the year.

This year I wanted to give the incoming regional council something special, a new mascot of sorts. I met with an artist and educator that specialized in prehistoric creatures. He not only provides artwork, but will soon be planning workshops to students and small groups on this enigmatic period of our planet. In admiring the names of many of these prehistoric creatures, I asked if he could create a "Niagarasaurus Rex" for me, based on the Tyrannosaurus variety. I wanted it placed on a large plaque with a caption that is timeless and can be hung right in the region's chambers - in a location that the TV cameras filming regional council meetings can't miss when they cover council sessions. He told me that he probably wouldn't do something like this. (He never said why, but I assume doing this would insult the dinosaurs - I would somewhat agree).

As Christmas passes in Niagara, we go through a very depressing period of time in January and February where nothing really happens, unless Valentine's Day is a big thing for you. The days get busier for me, as I am usually dealing with crisis after crisis among those that come through my doors. There is not a lot of mental health support for people in Niagara, although we have lots of people seeking it or needing it, or both. One cannot take a relaxing stroll down certain downtown streets in Niagara without encountering people engaged in drug deals, involved in the sex trade or getting drunk. Downtown can be an awful place after dark. In the spring, I get a flurry of new auto accident cases, as many people here still don't know how to drive in the winter and get struck. It is not necessarily the victim's fault; usually, it is the other drivers, many of whom still use cell phones as they drive or even drive while drunk.

After Christmas is over in Niagara, we don't hear about the homeless, the poor and the less fortunate anymore, because as my friend said about hypocrisy, most people only believe they exist once a year and even daring to question the political priorities and economic policies that led to them being here in the first place for us to garnish our guilty hearts with over the holiday season is even more politically incorrect than removing a few Christmas trees from the courthouse lobby.

I can only hope for a Christmas gift that I will never receive and that is the experience of boundless diversity and human tolerance and acceptance of people as they are in Niagara (as well as everywhere else),where anybody can be who they are without judgment, without criticism and without exclusion, and no person will ever have to rely on the periodic and irregular goodwill of others for their basic survival.

As somebody who has worked in the legal profession too long and before this, in social work, I have seen too much abuse of those by the so-called goodwill of others.

Your thoughts?

Monday, November 22, 2010


Madeleine Meilleur, the Minister of Community and Social Services, has been making a lot of noises lately about how there are too many people on ODSP, and how it is too "easy" to get onto ODSP. These comments have been made while community groups have tried to meet with her to open discussions on the special diet changes that are forthcoming, whereas the Madame Minister had promised that "not everybody who gets the special diet today will continue to get it under the new program". These two statements are code for big cuts ahead and as advocates, we need to be alert to these sorts of trends and comments.

As posted here before, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has made a ruling that the Ontario government, even under the guise of a "special program" cannot discriminate between disabilities without rationale. These cases were taken to the Human Rights Tribunal with the assistance of the Ontario Human Rights Commission after a former Minister of Community and Social Services amended the special diets program into a supplement program for persons with any one or more of 42 arbitrarily selected medical conditions. People without these medical conditions, or only a few of them and who experienced a decrease in their allowances, filed this Complaint. The Tribunal stated that in part, the government did discriminate against many of the applicants, and set up a test to determine eligibility that would meet the Code. Instead of complying with the Tribunal's Order and paying its bills, the government then turned around and decided to scrap the special diet altogether to replace it with a yet to be identified "nutritional supplement".

The history of the special diet file in Ontario is tainted with the fact that Madame Minister and members of the public that think like she does believe that people are using the money for something other than food. Well, maybe some folks with a little more money can actually pay rent and eat in the same month, which is something that Madame Minister never bothered investigating in the past. This issue was admittedly brought forth by community groups as a method to get a much needed increase to one's social benefits allowance to cover nutritious foods, while the government of the day remained twiddling their fingers at the switch, while more and more recipients became very ill with poverty-borne illnesses. It is stated that the real value of ODSP and Ontario Works' (or welfare) benefits have declined to a level below their value even at the time that Mike Harris exercised his axe on this program in 1995 and cut benefits by 21.6%.

A parallel and complementary campaign called Put Food in the Budget should have made Madame Minister aware that people cannot keep a roof over their head and eat well in the same month even among those that don't have medical conditions requiring a so-called "special diet". Residential rents and other utilities have skyrocketed in price, especially since the Liberals have passed several bills that are jacking up hydro and heating costs for everybody.

Last year about this time, the Minister appointed a Social Assistance Reform Advisory Council (SARAC) to advise her on the scope and depth of a proposed social assistance review as promised by the government during its so-called "poverty reduction" consultations. SARAC came back and made a very indepth comprehensive set of recommendations as to scope and latitude of such a review (and involving a broad range of social programs at both the federal and provincial level), but lately, we are hearing noises that the only place this review will actually be taking place is within Madame Meilleur's Ministry.

While advocates do welcome a review, we also have some concerns that the Liberals will use this review as a means to cut the program further and cut an unknown number of persons off ODSP, under the assumption that some of these people "can work". Madame Minister is not alone in her assumptions. Last summer, Richard August, of the Caledon Institute, wrote a paper that was critical of disability programs as such, that they tend to discourage people from re-entering the labour force and queried as to whether persons with disabilities should also have some type of labour market participation requirement in order to receive benefits. Echoed within this report and a subsequent Caledon study, which I will outline later, is some type of attempt to draft a sharp delineation between persons with disabilities that can work and those that cannot work.

Of course, there are persons with disabilities that can work that are on various disability programs. Idealistically, in a perfect world, almost all persons with disabilities "can work" at something, given the prescriptive removal of physical, technological, attitudinal and policy barriers. To me, this is a moot point, because nobody is forcing employers to hire anybody with a disability. In fact, most employers will not hire anybody with a disability, if they had a choice. Anyhow, the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (or the OECD), which we often hear about, and includes just about every so-called "rich" nation, has come up with a similar report of its own.

While the OECD praised Canada as being the country with the most stringent criteria for eligibility for disability programs, it nevertheless attacked all disability programs as removing people from the paid labour force. Again, it leads the question as to what kind of work obligation, if any, should be imposed on persons with disabilities, in order to remain eligible for benefits. It rigorously compared workplace-based disability programs that attempt to re-engage the disabled worker back into the workplace, and tried to discuss how similar programs can be established for programs like ODSP, AISH (in Alberta), CPP and Quebec disability.

While any advocate worth any salt would love to see an increased focus on assisting persons with disabilities to go back to work, or to enter the labour force for the first time, we are also quite cautious. To me, a program of this nature would not represent placing people with disabilities in jobs that will take them out of poverty and meet their educational, skill level and interests. I have spoken to employers that viewed themselves as "progressive" in the past. They hire "lots" of people with disabilities, they say - all in the mail room! Another program I am aware of was placing people in call centres, probably one of the most unstable, stressful and low paid type of position there is. Proponents of these types of programs don't care if a person "likes" their job or can live on the income derived from it, just that they want them all off benefits. This is unfortunately the way governments, including that of the provincial Liberals, seem to be going.

At the same time, groups like Caledon Institute are proposing a federal Basic Income for "persons with severe disabilities". The word "severe" is code for the fact that most persons with disabilities will not likely qualify for it, if it is ever in place. Proponents of this program want only those that qualify for BOTH the Disability Tax Credit and CPP-Disability allowance to be moved onto Basic Income. While the proponents argue that nobody should lose on such a proposal, meaning those currently on something like ODSP should continue to receive it, Caledon is stepping into potentially dangerous political territory, although I don't believe this is the intent of the report's authors.

At the present time, there is no "basic income" at the federal level apart from CPP Disability and a range of non-refundable tax credits available to some of those with disabilities. The federal government has always thought the legwork for this type of thing would be best left to the provinces to sort out. However, the trends that I am familiar with started with the Enhanced Verification Policies of the former NDP government under Bob Rae, when those who were approved for the former disability program in Ontario, then known as "Family Benefits Disability" were required to pursue ALL available income sources to which they could potentially be eligible. The list of potential sources of income included federal CPP, as well as other "first payers". If eligible for CPP-D the province would then take the monies granted through this or other programs and deduct dollar for dollar from the person's provincial disability income. This continues under ODSP.

The federal government has made several attempts to tighten the noose around the number of people drawing benefits from the CPP-D program. I have noted that even though the Federal Court of Appeal has ordered that such benefits be granted on more than the basis of disability alone, and that other factors, such as age, education and objective real world criteria must be taken into account, the so-called "real world" elements tend to be put on the back burner in light of medical evidence showing unequivocal severity of disability, e.g. lab reports, MRI's, etc. (which again is contrary to much common law in this area). One of my clients that had a leg amputated was said to be able to do "sedentary" work. At age 54, with a grade nine education, I was unsure what type of sedentary would he would be able to find. He finally was approved at the appeals stage. This has been the reality with CPP internally, and then lately, at some of the Review Tribunals, and even in a recent slew of Pension Appeals Board decisions. One has to be considered unable to work in any substantially gainful employment to qualify.

The Disability Tax Credit (DTC) is also tough to get, depending on the type of disability a person has. While the DTC does not rely on data excluding one's capacity to work, it takes a strictly functional definition of disability, whereby in practice, those with enumerated physical restrictions, such as walking, speaking, seeing, or hearing, are favoured, while those with less clear but invisible impairments have greater difficulty getting this benefit. More than 70% of persons on ODSP are receiving it due to a so-called invisible disability, whether that is mental health disability, intellectual disability, brain injury, or learning disability, and about half the remainder have physical disabilities that are not likely to meet the DTC criteria due to their episodic nature or the fact they do not fall under any clear criteria, e.g. chronic pain syndrome. I have successfully won appeals for persons seeking the DTC for "invisible" disabilities in the past, but such persons have such a degree of handicap that they are not only incapable of working, but frequently unable to care for themselves.

The Caledon Institute would give a Basic Income to those that qualify for BOTH the DTC and CPP-D, theoretically leaving the balance of persons with disabilities on ODSP. This all looks good. Let us assume that a federal government adopts this Basic Income approach. While it will provide more than ODSP, recipients will still live significantly below any poverty line, as they would be treated like senior citizens that are eligible for the GIS. They get a maximum of $14,000 a year, well below the $20,000 a year to meet the poverty line. But regardless, let us assume, they got more than that, and they can live okay on it. I already stated how the trend to uploading and downloading and offloading has started and has only sped up with abandon in the past few years, how nobody seems to want to be the first payer of income support for persons with disabilities.

Under such a plan, we are risking the Ontario government under the present or even a new constellation seeing this as an opportunity to offload "persons with disabilities". They may see this as an opportunity to save money by believing they no longer have to pay "extra" to Ontarians that have disabilities, and can get away with putting the balance of them on Ontario Works. After all, not meeting the federal criteria of being unable to do substantially gainful employment means that one can work, right? There is no LEGAL obligation on the part of Ontario to keep its ODSP program, given the federal Liberals dumping the Canada Assistance Plan Act several years ago. Any right wing government may view this as an opportunity to out do Mike Harris and do a real dump this time.

Do not think this won't ever happen. All we have to do is look south of us to the U.S. Many of us who thought the wacky Tea Party gang was a disorganized rump of angry people are now convinced that such right wing directionless thinking is actually in style and quite popular. Go to any newspaper website and read the comments section of any article that deals with social issues. People north of the U.S. border think with their wallets and think tax cuts are good, and any tax or fee is "bad", regardless of what services the taxes fund. The province's own Auditor General as much as accused the majority of people getting the dietary supplement as getting it through fraud, and that there are "overpayments in the billions" that must be put under immediate control, and subsequently he commented on the number of people receiving Ontario Works for two years or more.

Madeleine Meilleur does not want to meet with any community groups; one of the Coalitions I belong to has asked many times only to be told she was too busy. Some of our colleagues have met with her political staff, and of course, none of us are getting any answers as to what is going on, or what is being planned. The Put Food in the Budget campaign has been turned down completely because we are in a massive deficit position. There is always money to pay for $3,000 a day consultants, high priced hospital bureaucrats and huge expense accounts, but no money to feed the poor or to at least give all Ontarians an equal opportunity to take what Ontario offers.

I am not trying to frighten anybody, but we have to stand up to this attitude, which I describe at best as apathy and at worst, an actual conspiracy to attack the poor once again with yet another Mike Harris like attack. In economic recession, the poor have to wait for relief. In economic good times, the poor have to wait for relief. When do we stop waiting and start seeing the same benefits as other persons in Ontario, and be given to tools to utilize the wonderful resources this province otherwise has to offer?

Your thoughts?