Food Vouchers Are Discriminatory

The Northwest Territories Adjudication Panel recently handed down a decision that is important beyond the tiny Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, which is the respondent in the case, and beyond the borders of the Territory (Bates v. Northwest Territories (Education, Culture and Employment), CHRR Doc. 17-3097). It is a decision on the meaning of the ground “social condition”. Because there are not many such decisions, each one is significant.

Only Quebec and the Northwest Territories have human rights laws that include the ground social condition. Other provincial and territorial laws include source of income or receipt of public assistance, but sometimes only in the prohibitions against discrimination in tenancy (Ontario and British Columbia). The Canadian Human Rights Act contains no prohibition against discrimination on the ground of social condition or any similar poverty-related prohibition. Social condition is a broader and better term and should be included in all human rights legislation now.

Because legislation lacks the ground social condition or includes only a narrow version of it, the application of human rights law to discrimination because of poverty, homelessness, and related conditions, is remarkably underdeveloped in Canada.  Legislative reform to strengthen protections, steps to encourage and support the use of existing protections, and solid, thoughtful adjudication are badly needed.

All the more reason to cheer for the decision of the NWT Panel in Bates, which ruled that providing food vouchers to income assistance recipients, which can only be used in the Hamlet's two stores, constitutes discrimination on the basis of social condition. The Hamlet changed from providing monthly cheques for the whole of the income assistance amount to providing food vouchers in September 2011, apparently because of concern that children were coming to school hungry. There was no evidence that the hungry ones were the children of income assistance recipients. Nor was there any evidence that the food voucher system, in the years it was in place, made any difference to the children's hunger.

The Panel found that the change from cheques to food vouchers was based on a derogatory belief that income assistance recipients spend their money on alcohol, drugs, and candy, rather than on food for their children. The complainants testified that the food vouchers made them feel humiliated and demeaned, as though they could not make reasonable decisions about how to spend their income assistance and look after their families. The food voucher system also meant that they had no cash to buy country foods (moose, ptarmigan, goose, whale, berries) from local hunters and fishers. Nor could they shop in the town of Inuvik when there was the opportunity, where some food is cheaper, and choice is greater.

Embarrassingly, the reply to the complaint from the Government of the Northwest Territories was that there was no discrimination inherent in the food voucher system, because all welfare recipients in Tuktoyaktuk were treated the same. This is a bit like saying that providing no ramps for wheelchair users is not discriminatory because all wheelchair users are treated the same. By now, formalistic arguments like this one should be banished from the lexicon of arguments that Crown lawyers rely on. They are too old, too tired, and too discredited to be offered in defence of government conduct.

That said, we applaud the Pane's conclusion that the food voucher system discriminates against income assistance recipients in Tuktoyaktuk and look forward its decision on remedy.

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