Pushing back against the bullies

TheStar.com – comment – Pushing back against the bullies
July 09, 2008. Carol Goar

Bullies infuriate Sarah Shartal. The Toronto lawyer particularly dislikes politicians who pick on people who are homeless, hungry or disabled.

Shartal placed Sandra Pupatello in that category two years ago when the Ontario cabinet minister declared thousands of welfare recipients ineligible for the province’s special diet allowance. Pupatello was responding to a sudden rise in applications for nutritional assistance.

“Governments shouldn’t retaliate against poor people,” Shartal muttered, vowing to get the decision reversed.

The tenacious lawyer just got one step closer to her goal. In late June, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Ontario’s Social Benefits Tribunal is obliged to take into account the human rights of any individual who is denied benefits. That clears the way for thousands of Ontarians affected by Pupatello’s crackdown to appeal their cases.

Shartal can guarantee there will be a flood of appeals. She has enough clients lined up to overwhelm the tribunal.

This is an extremely laborious way to get a few extra dollars into the pockets of malnourished people, she admits. But if the government won’t budge, she’ll inundate the tribunal with street people, psychiatric survivors and individuals with disabilities, all alleging discriminatory treatment.

“This is not an idle threat,” she says. “We will crash the system if we have to.”

Getting this far took a prodigious effort. Shartal made 20 court appearances. She submitted reams of internal documents from the Ministry of Community and Social Services. And she badgered the Ontario Human Rights Commission into seeking intervenor status.

“This is a badly drafted policy and it has to change,” she says.

Shartal plans to write to Premier Dalton McGuinty in the coming days asking that all those disqualified from receiving the diet allowance – people with multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cerebral palsy, lupus, irritable bowel syndrome and any nutrition-related disease – be re-entitled to the benefit.

But her real objective is to fight chronic hunger.

Ontario’s welfare payments are so low – $536 per month for an individual, $967 for a single parent with two children – that many recipients can’t afford to eat properly. So they apply for nutritional assistance.

The practice began in 2005, when Jonah Schein, a York University student working on placement at the Queen West Community Health Centre, discovered a little-known provision of Ontario’s welfare regulations that allowed individuals with health-related nutritional needs to apply for a special dietary allowance of up to $250 a month. All they needed was a note from a doctor, nurse, nutritionist or midwife attesting that there was a genuine medical need.

It occurred to Schein that this was a way to raise welfare incomes, if willing medical practitioners could be found.

He took his idea to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). It approached sympathetic health-care providers and asked them to participate in special diet clinics, where welfare recipients could get help registering for the nutritional supplement. Several dozen agreed.

In Toronto, applications for the benefit increased fivefold.

The scheme incensed Pupatello. Denouncing the “rogue advocates” who organized the clinics, she tightened the rules. The ministry sent out new application forms, requiring health professionals to select from a list of 43 medical conditions for which there were predetermined amounts.

The increased paperwork, coupled with restrictive criteria, made the clinics impractical. Many folded.

That was when Shartal launched her legal battle.

She hasn’t won yet. But she has given the 30,000 Ontarians affected by Pupatello’s edict a way to fight back. And she has forced the Ministry of Community and Social Services to justify every decision to reject an applicant’s request for nutritional assistance.

Her colleagues in the anti-poverty movement admire her dedication, but wonder about her tactics. They consider the diet allowance skirmish a side issue. They are lobbying for a comprehensive plan to cut poverty by 25 per cent within five years.

But Shartal is determined to press ahead. She won’t rest until the principle that governments can’t beat up poor people is firmly established.

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