MADAM CHAIR: Let's get ready to start. Good evening. My name is Maureen MacDonald, and I am the MLA for Halifax Needham and the Chair of the Standing Committee on Community Services. Along with my colleagues here on the committee tonight, we are very pleased to be in Port Hawkesbury to hear the people from this community who are here to present us their ideas around social assistance reform restructuring.
We don't have a large turnout here tonight, which is okay. Our process is relatively informal. We ask people to come forward as we call them and, if you have a written brief, you might want to read from it if that is what you feel comfortable doing, or you might want to just hit the highlights of anything you have written to us, or you just might want to speak from your life experience, without referring to a written brief, and that is fine as well. At the end of your presentation, members of the committee will ask you questions, or ask you to elaborate on certain points that you made, and we will have a bit of a discussion. That, essentially, is the process.
The first presentation that we have on our agenda is from the Cape Breton Family Place Resource Centre.
MR. JAMES MUIR: We should introduce . . .
MADAM CHAIR: Sorry, before we do that, members of the committee should introduce themselves. Thank you, Mr. Muir.
[The committee members introduced themselves.]
MR. JERRY PYE: Madam Chair, the first person on the agenda tonight is a private citizen.
MADAM CHAIR: Thank you, Mr. Pye, I didn't notice that, so our first presenter is Mr. Cotton.
MR. RICHARD COTTON: Thank you, Madam Chair. My name is Richard Cotton. I just want to get on the record that what I am doing here tonight is making a personal appearance before the committee. I am the Warden of Richmond County, but they may or may not share the views that I am going to present here tonight. They are not ones that I ran by them; they are feelings that I have personally and ones that I want to share with the committee.
MADAM CHAIR: Thank you very much.
MR. COTTON: I haven't a written text or a written report for you, basically I am going to give it to you verbally, just some thoughts that I have. I am sure that a lot of them will be repeated as you go across the province.
I want to talk first about the one-tier system, or the one-tier system-to-be, I think, is the better way to put it. Right now, as you realize, there is a two-tier system that still exists in Nova Scotia in family benefits and what we call provincial assistance now. There are some difficult problems with that. People who are on family benefits, that being single parents and disabled people, aren't getting their special needs addressed unless they are very costly. What the province is doing is making them use up the difference between their budget and what the budget would be for provincial assistance, and that is causing a very severe hardship on a lot of people.
I know that the staff has told me that they are working towards that goal, and I expect that is one of the reasons why you are going around the province now to address that need. Just to give you an example of how bad it is, even before I came up tonight, I had a call from a gentleman who is disabled. He had been passing some blood, and he had to go to a doctor in Antigonish to get a specialist. He could not get money out of social services because of their policy and, basically, it ended up that we had to hold a collection for him to get to this doctor's appointment in Antigonish. I am not saying the community shouldn't get involved and do things like that, but I guess what we would like to do is to help those people above and beyond the certain basics. That is something that has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed fairly quickly.
The other item that is troubling to me, too, is when disabled people apply for family benefits. They have to go and get a doctor's form filled out; the province doesn't pay for that. Essentially, one of two things is going to happen: either the person is going to have to borrow money from somebody to get that form filled out; or, in our case, the rural doctors who are
already overburdened are going to have to do it free of charge, getting no fee for it. I think that is an unfortunate situation that indeed has to be corrected as soon as possible.
I want to talk about the intake system. I am not going to debate with anybody on how the intake system is supposed to work but, from practice and being involved, I can tell you how it is working in our area. It seems to me that the intake system, when people apply for assistance - and a lot of times those people don't like applying for assistance, it is certainly not something that they are proud to do, but yet they do - the intake system is very cumbersome, with the amount of forms that have to be filled out and with the innuendos that are made, it is almost as if these people are doing something wrong.
I am not sure that is not what is intended. It may well be that they are trying to find out if there is any fraud in the system. I would suggest that the intake is not the time to find out whether there is fraud involved or not. I think that when intake workers come into clients' homes to evaluate them, there should be compassion and they should be treated with dignity. If there is fraud associated with that, then that should be in someone else's hands to determine that. It should not be done in the intake system. I am not suggesting that it is, but it has all the appearances of working that way.
Many nights I have spent with people, helping them fill out a stack of forms that is about that thick. Now, I am not saying those forms aren't essential. I know it goes toward trying to find placement for those people and whatever, but I think the intake worker has to take more time to help those people indeed fill out those forms. A lot of these people are uneducated, and forms certainly cause a lot more stress in their life, a lot of stress that they don't need.
I guess one of the things that has bothered me is when the new National Child Benefit Program came down. I have always been resentful of the fact that the feds have not been addressing an issue that I don't think that we can be very proud of in our country. The UN report has come out and it shows us as one of the top nations to live in the world, in fact the number one, but when it comes to issues of child poverty, we are ranked a very poor 10th. I think that is shameful for a country with all the resources that we do have.
Now they finally took some, at least, first steps by implementing the National Child Benefit Program. What the province has done is clawed that back. The money that is being clawed back, I understand the programs that it is going to, and I indeed applaud those programs that that money is going to, my problem is that it should never have come from the people who can least afford to pay it. There has to be somewhere else in the system. Not to take away from commitments to health, commitments to education, but if you want to do a true survey on what people feel, then the ones you should survey are the ones that are on social assistance, and ask them to rank those three. I can tell you, you can put all the money in education you want, but if you have a child that is hungry or sleepy or tired, I don't care what money you put into the system, you are not going to be able to teach that child.
I think that the province has to do a little more lobbying with our federal partners. I will try to give you a couple of examples of that. The new EI program came in 1995, one of the big commitments that EI package made was to single parents. I know, because I worked with some of those people in order to get them ready to do that, and try to find them entry level jobs that they could not afford to take. What they were going to do is subsidize the wage, and in our area, it would have been about $9.50. I can tell you people, the difference between $5.50 in an area that we live in and $9.50 means the difference between being able to go out and get some work and make it worthwhile, where a parent can not only take care of their children but also be able to take a little bit of pride in their work.
To say that there is a lot of fraud in the social service system, I think is wrong. There is going to be fraud, I think, everywhere in the world. When you go shopping, there are shoplifters. But I don't think that people who are on social assistance are any greater or any less than anyone else. That has to be addressed.
Wage subsidy had been promised in the report in 1995. I have checked on a quarterly basis with HRD, and even though they are very supportive of that program, it has not been directed yet by the federal government. I think that is something that this committee has to put a lot of work into, because they have, I may be wrong in my figures, but I believe the surplus in the EI fund is closing in at around $12 billion. I know that the federal Finance Minister wants to put it to debt control, and that may be a good use for part of it. But I think that we have to put that money to much better use in the immediate term, at least some of it. That is a program that indeed should come into being, and it should come into being as quickly as possible, because it has been promised, it has not been delivered. I think it is important to single parents.
I have noticed there has been a lot of talk around about the character of a mother on social assistance. I believe they are victims. Some people can debate that, but I don't think that anybody can debate that their children aren't innocent victims. If you can't feed or you can't take care of the parents, then the child is going to go hungry. That has to be addressed.
It is interesting times in Nova Scotia. Sitting on this committee, it is pretty well evenly distributed among Liberal Government people, NDP Opposition, and the Progressive Conservative Party. I think it is an opportune time too, for this committee. A lot of times when governments are in power, they set their direction, rightly or wrongly, certainly I think they do it with good intentions, and no matter what happens, that is what goes ahead. I think this is an opportune time for the three Parties here, even though I know that the Liberal commitment has been on education and health care. I think those members have to find some money and some time for Community Services, some of the subjects we are going to talk about here tonight.
I think the NDP members have to understand that even though they are the Opposition, to tell their government that they can spend on this and spend on that and spend that, and oh, by the way, balance the budget too. I don't think that is fair. I think from the Conservative caucus, maybe if we can't get the other two working, then maybe it is your job to make sure that they do work together, and to address these problems. I think this committee can do some useful work. I don't expect it to be able to cure the woes overnight, but it would be nice if you could take that ship, bring it to a halt, and at least start it in the right direction. Thank you very much.
MADAM CHAIR: Thank you very much. Okay, who would like to start? Mr. Muir.
MR. MUIR: I was interested in your comments, your first point about the people who are disabled trying to get on the Family Benefits Program, and they have to get a medical form filled out to do that. There is a fee for that now that is not covered by Community Services, even if they are successful in getting on the program. I wasn't aware of that. I just wanted to mention that starting off. Perhaps there will be a question that comes to me later. Thank you.
MR. COTTON: Sure.
MADAM CHAIR: Mr. DeWolfe.
MR. JAMES DEWOLFE: Just give me a moment here.
MADAM CHAIR: Mr. Pye.
MR. PYE: I believe, Mr. Cotton, you did say that you are speaking as a private citizen tonight, not as a warden. I have often been challenged as a municipal council member when I spoke at public meetings as well. Often you tend to carry the voice of your council as well, even though you don't intend to do that.
I want to commend you for bringing some very important issues. First of all, with respect to, as I understand it, paying for the doctor's fee to have the forms filled out. Persons normally who are making application, who are encouraged to make application from Community Services to CPP, they are the individuals who end up having to pay for that. That is where, in fact, this picture comes in that social services doesn't cover that cost. Some medical centres do understand that, and they do absorb the costs themselves.
MR. COTTON: A lot of our family doctors indeed do the same thing.
MR. PYE: Okay. Thank you. I am pleased to hear that. There was another, not related to Community Services, but you indicated that the EI surplus would be around about $12 billion this year, and that you had no difficulty in the federal government putting some of this towards the national debt . . .
MR. COTTON: They have already promised - oh, I am sorry, I anticipated, Mr. Pye, my apologies. It was a wrong anticipation.
MR. PYE: Towards the debt retirement. It is my opinion, and just mine that I don't believe that this EI fund was ever designed to assist in debt retirement of Canada. In fact, it was to assist in educational programs and to get back into the employment field. In fact, the employers and employees both contribute to this plan, and the government does not put one single penny into it, as of the present day. As a result of that, if there were any surpluses, it should be equally shared by the employer and the employees, I think, if in fact there is to be reductions within that.
The other thing finally is the intake services. I am very pleased to hear you say that, because people go through a horrendous exercise in trying to make application for family benefits in this province - I shouldn't say family benefits, income assistance program as well, social services I should say, in this province - quite often it ends up in futility whereby the individuals who desperately need the assistance end up not going forward to get the assistance. In that case they're left out there on their own. I am just wondering from you if, in fact, you can give us any statistics with respect to the number of clients that are on social assistance in Richmond County?
MR. COTTON: I can't give you them as at the present time but I can give them to you approximately as of April 1st. At that point in time we had a base I believe of about close to 8 per cent of our population which was a huge amount plus we had a TAGS program that was coming to a halt in Isle Madame which was one of the areas that had a messy turndown from the fisheries. I would expect, unless they're successful in finding employment, and our people that have worked with them are, you know, they're having some success but there is still going to be a lot of people that when it comes the end of the day, and I am talking about the people in the 50 to 55 range who aren't going to be covered by this retirement package, that it is going to be hard to employ them and those people are probably going to be looking for assistance.
MR. PYE: There's another issue that I want to bring up as well and I think that you touched on it and that is the standardization of rates for recipients across the province. Now, it is my understanding as of April 1, 1998, that the Department of Community Services did that and that the rates for individuals living in Richmond County are exactly the same rates as those individuals would receive in Halifax?
MR. COTTON: Mr. Pye, that's not the standardization I meant. What has happened is the people on family benefits and people on provincial assistance, there is a different rate.
MR. PYE: Yes, okay, right. There are two different programs.
MR. COTTON: Yes, and what happens is when people on family benefits apply for special needs, i.e. glasses, doctor care, . . .
MR. PYE: They have to go through the Income Assistance Program in order to receive that?
MR. COTTON: Well, actually if the amount is for less than the difference between the two programs, they get nothing.
MR. PYE: That's right, right you are.
MR. COTTON: That's the difference.
MR. PYE: That's the clarity.
MR. COTTON: The equality from region to region, yes, that was addressed and I certainly give them full credit for addressing that inequality.
MR. PYE: Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Atwell.
MS. YVONNE ATWELL: Thank you. Mr. Cotton, I just have one question. First, thank you for your presentation. You brought up many points in your presentation. You also mentioned a couple times in respect to intake workers and fraud. In your personal opinion do you feel that there is an assumption by intake workers that people applying for benefits on the first instance may be looking in some way to be dishonest about their claim? How do you feel that impacts on those people who are applying for social assistance?
MR. COTTON: Ms. Atwell, I have to reverse that question. You see, I can't presume exactly what's in the minds of the intake workers. What I can speak to is what's in the minds of the people that they are doing the services for because they speak to me and that's the feeling that they get, that when the intake worker comes in, that they're looking for a reason to turn them down because they don't deserve benefits. That's how they feel and I am not saying that's what the intake worker is doing. I am just talking about the result that comes down to the person that's putting an application in the system, that is how they feel and that's something, I think, that it is not conducive to anything that is humane at all.
I mean for single parents that have children and for a mother in most cases, that's what it is, you know. She's having a difficult struggle but when she has to apply for assistance and she feels like that, regardless of what the circumstances are, then I think the intake has to take a different direction to make sure that indeed doesn't happen.
MADAM CHAIR: Mr. MacEwan.
MR. PAUL MACEWAN: I didn't really have any questions for Mr. Cotton this evening, Madam Chair, but I am very glad that he is here this evening. I have known Mr. Cotton for a long time and he is one of the most informed and dedicated public servants that I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I think it's an indication of how interested he is that he would be here this evening to make his point. So I am certainly glad to see you here tonight, Mr. Warden, or Richie, I realize you're here as a private citizen.
MR. COTTON: I appreciate the kind words.
MR. MACEWAN: You have helped me a great deal over the years.
MADAM CHAIR: Mr. Downe.
HON. DONALD DOWNE: I want to welcome Mr. Cotton here as well. I thought he covered a number of the points that were touched on last night by a number of speakers but not quite as clear and precise. The comments last night were that, although there was reference to a large number - but whether it is large or not so large - the issue of treating people with compassion and dignity, that came up as one of the common threads last night and, you know, I think the Chair made a good point last night, in fact I guess there were three points: one was, not having clarity of the issues of the files or the policies that are there within Community Services; number two, treating people with more dignity and compassion; and, number three, that there's consistency throughout the province in dealing with programs.
That was a fairly good thread and I think the Chair made the observation that because sometimes the complexity of the policy and how it is put together and so on and so forth it is open to some interpretation and maybe there is an issue there that needs to be clarified. I made the observation as well that I felt that we can't mask all people in the service as being non-compassionate. I think there are a lot of very dedicated people in the system. Are you finding that there is a little bit of that? Do you think that maybe we should be spending more time helping to educate our caseworkers and spending some time with trying to deal with this whole issue of being able to show compassion? We might not necessarily be able to do everything that everybody wants in the way they want it, but at the same time having the time to spend with them.
The last point would be maybe we're expecting too much from our caseworkers, maybe they're overworked or they have too many files in dealing with some of those clients and they don't have the ability to spend the time, and they're under stress to be able to come out with that more compassionate and sensitive approach to filling out the forms that you end up helping to fill out.
MR. COTTON: Don, I think that you're bang on in what you're saying. There was a new system put in place. When the social workers were doing it, I think it was done much better, but I understand the social workers have a huge caseload so, therefore, they had to hire intake workers, and I think that the intake workers may have gotten their job confused. I think that the Community Services Department should have instructed them very carefully on what their first goal was and that it had to be client-based.
It is up for people like, Don, the government and the Opposition members to worry about budgets but, when it comes to intake, I think that the budgets can't be an issue that intake workers have to address. They have to address a need and it is going to be up to their managers to address if it is fraud-related after they have come in, or if their budgets are going to be overspent, then that has to be addressed through government sources. It cannot be addressed at the intake level.
I think there are probably a lot of compassionate people on the intake but, again, I think Don is quite correct, I think that because of the downturn in the fisheries and some other related issues, they're overburdened and they have to move quickly, and maybe sometimes when you're in a hurry and you see a lot of people's problems, it is very easy to miss that; whereas an individual has their own problem to worry about and he or she sees it very clearly. I think you are quite right, Don, I think that maybe a little extra education by the manager in setting out exactly what their job is would go a long way toward alleviating that.
MADAM CHAIR: Mr. Montgomery.
MR. LAWRENCE MONTGOMERY: Thank you. Just a point of observation. You mentioned EI monies being used to more advantage. There are a couple of moves afoot. I know in our area, through West Nova, the federal riding, letters of concern have gone from that association federally to assist people in the learning centres so that people can better themselves and get off social assistance. I know that I have written a letter as well accompanying the letter from the federal riding with this thought in mind. So, hopefully, if we all pull together on that one, we can make some moves to make better use of the EI monies.
MR. COTTON: You're right on, too. It helps people like myself. Once the federal programs come down, I have no problem going through and understanding those programs and taking them out into the system and educating the people that can use them. I have no problem doing that at all, and there are a lot of people around the province who would indeed do that. We need the programs in place.
I can tell you a number of success stories that we did on our own. For example, a young lady just moved to St. F.X. and took her nine year old daughter with her. She is going to college now. She commuted back and forth to our community and Antigonish last year and we were able to get her residence in Antigonish, and her child is moving in well.
Those are the kinds of things that we can do, if we only had the assistance that was promised from EI about these programs, even to go out in the community and help young people find jobs, I have no problem doing that but I have got to be able to have some sort of a leverage with the employer to do that because he is taking a risk too and he wants to help. It is just that he has to fundamentally believe in his business first. I may be able to get him to bend but I cannot get him to break and I wouldn't want to do that.
I think you're right, the education process is important but, also, there are a lot of young parents out there or young mothers that want to work as long as they are able to take care of their child, you know something, that has to be their first goal. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIR: Mr. DeWolfe.
MR. DEWOLFE: Thank you, Madam Chair. Most of my concerns have been addressed. You did a fine job, Mr. Cotton. I appreciate you sharing your observations with us. I think you are bang on with many of them. It is a very stressful time for these people when they are first going into the system.
Many of them come to my office expressing the concern that they had, that they were ill to their stomach over the prospects of having to do this, having their first interview with a staff worker, and ended up crying all night over it. They felt like they were dirt on their boots, as one woman put it to me last week.
I do believe that the staff has to, certainly, understand what their job is and where their lines of authority start and end. Again, thank you very much. I really appreciated your comments. You, being a person who was working in the municipality for a good many years, I think you have probably seen it all. Your observations are well accepted by myself. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIR: I have a couple of questions, if I could, and comments. First of all, I thought your presentation was extremely thoughtful. You have hit on so many issues that have already been talked about last night in Sydney that we need to look at. You have also, I think, raised some new ones that we haven't been confronted with, including our own, sort of, role in the process of making social assistance change.
MR. COTTON: I couldn't resist, having a bunch of politicians around the table.
MADAM CHAIR: Well, I thank you for making it very explicit. My questions really go to the issues that you have raised around wage subsidies. Wage subsidies are controversial, I guess, as a social policy tool. I think, to some extent, where they have been used, because they go to employers they have been found to be a tool to create jobs for a very short term.
In other words, the job that gets created for a social assistance recipient only lasts as long as the subsidy lasts. That's a problem, I suppose, in some ways; wage subsidy programs have been problematic in that way.
MR. COTTON: Madam Chair, if I may, that was not my understanding, though, of the EI program. The way that I understood the EI program was, here is how it was going to work. I would go out, myself, and try to help young people get out to work. There was an employer that would agree to pay the minimum wage, okay. They would do that and they would draw stamps from that but the EI system would give them another cheque equivalent to - in our case, it was $5.50 an hour at that time - another $4.00 an hour which they would have got directly. It wouldn't have been through the employer.
I agree with you, the direct wage subsidy, I do have a problem with that because sometimes you can go from worker to worker and it is the employer that gets the benefit and not the employee.
MADAM CHAIR: I guess that is the way I understand wage subsidies, as they have worked so far.
MR. COTTON: Okay. This one was different from that.
MADAM CHAIR: It was the clarification on that point.
MR. COTTON: Yes.
MADAM CHAIR: Thank you. Yes. The other thing that you didn't mention - but I am wondering what your thinking is on it - is around issues like child care, transportation, Pharmacare, pharmaceuticals, those kinds of social supports that people require. Could you comment on that particularly in the rural context, you know?
MR. COTTON: Two things about Pharmacare. One is, I think the Pharmacare Program has to be extended. When you help a young person to get off into the workplace, I think there has to be a grandfathering in of the Pharmacare Program. You have to allow it to stay in place until such time as they can be self-sufficient.
I would suggest even further that the working poor of this province, of this country, cannot afford to pay for Pharmacare for drugs for their children. They cannot afford it because of the low wages that they are making. Maybe the Pharmacare system has to be looked at based on what your total wage is, rather than whether you're on assistance, or not.
Now, I know that that, indeed, is going to cost money. Again, I challenge the committee on that. If you are going to make solutions, then take the fiscal responsibility for saying where the money is going to come from. I think that way government will have a much
better chance in listening to you. Even though, in a minority situation, I guess it is academic, because you are going to need a majority.
I would suggest that this committee can do a lot of these things but they have to work together. That is the great thing about a minority government. You have to work together. I don't think anybody can suggest that it can be done and not say how it is going to be done.
MADAM CHAIR: Okay. There are lots of other things I'd like to talk to you about but I guess we have to end there. Are there any other questions from anybody else on the committee, or comments? Mr. Muir?
MR. MUIR: Thank you. Mr. Cotton, you had mentioned the National Child Benefit Program and indicated you felt that money should have been distributed to the people, rather than the provincial government clawing it back with the intention of putting it in other programs. That program, as I understand it, was not intended for everybody. It was originally designed, sort of, for the working poor.
Was there a problem in the communication of that particular thing? That was one of the things, when it first came out - particularly when that cheque came out and people lost money off the cheque. Was that a problem in your area, the communication of how that program was to work? Did people understand it?
MR. COTTON: That is a double-edged question. I listened to the Finance Minister when he delivered his budget. What he was trying to do was put that money into the hands of people who needed it the most. That is why he had an income level for it. To say that that was the national intent, I think, is wrong because there are two provinces, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, who are not clawing the money back.
Now, I'm not saying that the money clawed back was not put to good programs. I suggest that those programs were, indeed, good. What I am saying is, they should have found other monies and not used that.
The federal government has finally addressed child poverty to some extent. Not enough, but at least it was a start and now, I think, the province has clawed it back. I believe that that is fundamentally wrong, even though they have put the programs to good use. One group that they put a lot of it into was the working poor who, indeed, need help.
Again, I go back to, as important as health care is and as important as education is, that is where the government is being told the money belongs.
I think we have to revisit minority rights in Nova Scotia. I think we have to survey the people who are on assistance and see what their choices are. Naturally, if you are going to take a person that has money coming in, they are going to tell you that education and health
are the most important issues because they don't need social services. I don't think we can make those assumptions on that.
I think that we are going to look upon ourselves, both as Canadians and as a province, to have a moral conscience. We do, indeed, have to address that.
MADAM CHAIR: Thank you. Is there anything further from any members of the committee? Thank you very much.
MR. COTTON: Yes. Ms. MacDonald, my apologies, it is not that I am not interested in the proceedings but I have a commitment.
MADAM CHAIR: I understand.
MR. COTTON: We are having some problems with the hospital that we have to deal with and I have got to run out to another meeting. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIR: Good night. Is there anybody here from the Cape Breton Family Place Resource Centre? Are there any other presentations from members of our audience tonight? Hearing none, I guess this meeting stands adjourned.
MR. MUIR: Maybe we should wait for 10 or 15 minutes just to see if anyone else comes.
MR. PYE: Why don't we agree to 15 minutes, until 8:00 p.m. If no one shows, then that will be the time.
MADAM CHAIR: Is that agreed? Yes, okay, fine.
[The committee adjourned at 7:40 p.m.]