CWP Speaks Out at the Finance Committee

11-18-14

As you’ve probably heard, Canada Without Poverty has been speaking out loudly about our concerns with the federal government’s attempts to restrict refugees from social assistance, first through a Private Member’s Bill and now through the Omnibus Budget Bill. This week, the Omnibus Budget Bill is speeding through study by committee. Today, CWP spoke out at the Standing Committee on Finance (FINA) where we addressed the human rights violations that will occur if this Bill is passed.

You can check out the written version of our presentation, which was presented by Michèle Biss, CWP’s Legal Education and Outreach Coordinator, below:

PRESENTATION TO THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON FINANCE

SECTIONS 172 AND 173 OF BILL C-43 (AMENDMENTS TO THE FEDERAL-PROVINCIAL FISCAL ARRANGEMENTS ACT)

November 18, 2014

Thank you for inviting Canada Without Poverty to appear at these very important hearings. I will be concise in my remarks, as I understand we are under very tight time constraints, and there are many witnesses who have been invited to provide their expert opinions on this Bill.

Canada Without Poverty

I would like to provide some context as to why I am speaking on behalf of Canada Without Poverty today. CWP is a federally incorporated, charitable organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty in Canada. Since our inception in 1971 as the National Anti-Poverty Organization, we have been governed by people with direct, lived experience of poverty, whether in childhood or as adults. This lived experience of poverty informs all aspects of our work.

I sit here today, as a representative of their lived experience and years of work in their communities, fighting for the rights of individuals in the poorest sections of our society. Our constituents, our directors, and our supporters have all told us that sections 172 and 173 of Bill C-43 (The Omnibus Budget Bill) are of grave concern.

  1. The Role of the Provinces

Our first concern is with respect to the role of the provinces.

Sections 172 and 173 of Bill C-43 erode a key national standard. It opens the door for provinces to impose a minimum residency requirement before refugees can apply for social assistance, without any penalty on the province’s Canada Social Transfer payment.

The government has suggested that this is being done at the behest of provinces, which we all know to be false. For example, an Ontario government spokesperson told a reporter that they did not want provisions 172 and 173 of the Omnibus Bill and were concerned that “a waiting period could impact people with legitimate refugee claims who are truly in need” and that these concerns had been communicated to the federal government.

The government has also suggested that this arrangement would allow the provinces to have more flexibility in their administration of social assistance. The erosion of a national standard which protects the basic needs of a vulnerable group is unnecessary to grant provinces flexibility. Provincial governments currently have the ability to administer social assistance in whatever way they see fit, as long as it remains available to the most vulnerable groups.

It is our view that the government is hiding behind the provinces. What is in fact going on here is that the federal government is offering a financial incentive to provinces as a means of having provinces implement the governments’ ideologically driven policies toward refugees.

  1. Impact on a Particularly Vulnerable Group

Our second concern is the impact that these sections will have on a particularly vulnerable group.

Let’s be clear about what is being proposed here: The federal government would like to provide provinces with a fiscal incentive to deny refugee claimants access to social assistance for a waiting period. We are talking about denying an extremely vulnerable group of people access to basic needs, the very things that are critical to survival.

I encourage the members of this committee to stand in the shoes of a refugee. Imagine, you are a woman who has left her home in Africa, say for example from Sudan, after enduring persecution in the form of physical violence because of a perceived political affiliation. Imagine that you arrive in Canada, with a baby in tow, your friends and family thousands of kilometers away. You make your refugee claim, and then what? You’re suffering trauma, you’re afraid and alone, you know little about Canadian society, even if you knew how and where to find a job, you’re unable to work without care for your infant, and you have no means to access basic necessities – food, housing, and personal necessities. How are you expected to survive?

Women, children and men who have sought the safety of a stable democracy will be forced to rely on already overburdened social services such as emergency shelters, food banks and churches or they will be forced to live on the streets. All of which is equally, if not more costly for provinces and municipalities

Minister Alexander has suggested that Canada needs measures to protect Canadians against non-legitimate refugees who would take advantage of Canada’s generosity. But the provisions in this Bill are overreaching and do not distinguish between those non-legitimate claims and refugees fleeing real persecution, like the woman I just described. It should also be noted that provinces already have effective mechanisms in place to prevent fraudulent claims for social assistance, without having to resort to restrictive waiting periods.

  1. Contravenes Canada’s International Human Right Obligations

Lastly and most importantly, if adopted, these provisions will contravene Canada’s international human rights obligation to refrain from taking retrogressive measures. In other words, it is a violation of international human rights law for Canada to undermine the social protections that guarantee human rights.

In this case, access to basic needs for refugees is currently protected. By passing these provisions and taking away that standard, the federal government is permitting provinces to undermine that standard and deny social assistance on a discriminatory basis. I encourage members to reflect on how history will see this moment. Canadians pride themselves on our international reputation as a safe haven for refugees fleeing persecution, a community of compassionate individuals, let’s not change that.

For these reasons, we ask the Committee to recommend that sections 172 and 173 be struck from Bill C-43. Canada Without Poverty is not alone in this call. I have here with me an open letter signed by a coalition of 160 organizations who also assert that these provision are a violation of human rights and must not be passed. I have attached the open letter to the written version of my comments.

To see video or audio of our presentation click here.