HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2017
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Chuck Porter
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We now call the Committee of the Whole on Supply to order.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Would you please call the Estimates for the Minister of Community Services, Resolution E4.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth North with 26 minutes remaining in your hour.
MS. SUSAN LEBLANC: Hello again. I’m going to start with housing, just a quick one, I think. Yesterday, we were talking a little bit about rent supplements. When a rent supplement is approved for a unit, does the department take any responsibility for the quality and condition of that unit?
HON. KELLY REGAN: Yes. In fact, before a client can move into a unit or anything like that with a rent supplement, we do an inspection looking for health and safety standards. If there are any deficiencies, those are to be corrected before the tenant moves in.
MS. LEBLANC: What role would the department play in a situation where a client wishes to make a complaint about the conditions in a rent supplement unit after moving in if it deteriorates?
MS. REGAN: Just as with a private sector tenant, that tenant would take any concerns after that point to the Residential Tenancies board.
MS. LEBLANC: Since the rent supplement is attached to the unit and not the client, what recourse do clients have if they have concerns about the safety of a unit? I guess you have answered that, but I’ll ask you to clarify that they would go to the Residential Tenancies board. Would there be any situation where, if their issue is not resolved through that recourse - taking it to the board and the hearings and all of that - that you would cancel the rent supplement and perhaps move the person to another unit?
MS. REGAN: We’re not aware of a case where that has happened, but one of the things we are discussing through transformation is whether we would, in fact - rather than having a rent sub attached to a unit, it would be attached to the client, so that they would have that particular voucher - that’s what they would call it elsewhere - and would be able to be portable with that and take it elsewhere. In a case where you did have a unit that was not - whether it wasn’t being repaired over time or whatever - that tenant could possibly use that.
That’s one of the things we’re exploring at this time.
MS. LEBLANC: Thank you. I would just like to go on the record saying that, while I don’t think rent supplements are the be-all and end-all of the housing crisis in Nova Scotia, if we do have to have them in this way, then I would fully advocate for that to happen. I think that it is a much safer and fairer way to approach the issue.
I think that’s all the questions I have for housing, so I’m going to keep going with my list.
AN HON. MEMBER: But not all the questions you have, period.
MS. LEBLANC: No, no, I still have other questions. Is there a scenario where we could let the PCs ask their housing questions?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Unfortunately, it’s the balance of your hour, honourable member. If you have questions to complete that, that’s fine. If not, you would waive that and it would go to the PC caucus and then come back.
MS. LEBLANC: Okay. We’ll keep going.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth North, we’ve had the deputy come in. You can carry on with your questioning, please. That would be great.
MS. LEBLANC: Some of these questions are clarifying questions from last night, and some of them are ones that we haven’t talked about yet.
I’d like to clarify a couple of things about transformation. What does the department anticipate the total cost will be for the transformation project over all four years?
MS. REGAN: We do not have that at our fingertips. We can probably get it to you before the end of the night.
MS. LEBLANC: Thank you, and if you could also let us know if any of that money - did any of it, or will any of it, over the four years, go directly to ESIA recipients?
Before I sit down, I’m going to say that I think I have other colleagues in my caucus who do want to ask housing questions, but we can do them at the end of this 20 minutes so that they back onto the PCs’ housing questions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Unfortunately, as per the rules, questions and answers are - you have time left in your hour, so if you have other colleagues in your caucus who wish to fill part of that, feel free.
MS. LEBLANC: Yes, that’s what I’m saying. We will do that. I will allot time myself for them to ask questions. We’ll stay within our 20 minutes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Could you advise which member will be coming up, please?
MS. LEBLANC: I believe the member for Halifax Needham.
MR. CHAIRMAN: She has to be in the Chamber to be recognized.
MS. LEBLANC: Yes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: You need to carry on with questions or your hour will be complete.
MS. LEBLANC: Yes, I’m going to carry on. I just wanted to give a heads-up.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Very good, please do - carry on with your questions.
MS. LEBLANC: I just wanted to ask that. The next question is, yesterday - sorry, yes . . .
MS. REGAN: There will be money for our clients through transformation, so think of, for example - and I’m just going to give you one example. There will be money for clients through - those who choose to work more will get to keep more, so we will see more money going out to clients through that, for example. There will be more money when we do the standard household rate, so there will be more money going out the door to clients.
MS. LEBLANC: Yesterday we spoke about both the lack of Internet access for many people on income assistance and the department’s investment in developing online services, even as the minister acknowledged that most of the department’s clients don’t have telephones. My question is, if ESIA clients don’t have phones or Internet, what analysis did the department do to decide it made sense to spend money on the development of online services?
MS. REGAN: We did a survey with our clients and the majority of them said that they did, in fact, want to see online services. We know that a significant proportion of our clients are making a decision to actually buy a phone or to have a plan to have a phone right now. While not all our clients have access to phones, we do see quite a few of our clients who are, in fact, using cellphones and Internet services. We also know that a lot of our clients who do have access to either a phone or some other mode of communication do, in fact, use them in public spaces, so they could go to an Internet café or they go to the public library, places like that.
We know that quite a few of our clients are, in fact, connected to the Internet. It may not be in their house or it may not be in their unit, but they are using the Internet and they did indicate that they wanted online services.
MS. LEBLANC: Do you have any plans for improving ESIA clients’ access to those basic services of telephone and Internet?
MS. REGAN: As I indicated yesterday, we are looking at improving access. We know that communication is an issue.
MS. LEBLANC: Thank you. Now I’m going to turn it over to my colleague, the member for Halifax Needham to ask housing questions. I apologize for the confusion, but that means the Progressive Conservative caucus can ask those questions when it’s their turn too.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. LISA ROBERTS: Actually, I do have a few general questions, so I’ll ask those and then we’ll save my housing questions for the end. One is a very specific question. In my district at various community events, I’ve come to know a number of grandparents raising their grandkids - not always in happy circumstances, or not as a result of happy circumstances - doing the best they can, often with very low incomes. I have often wondered, recognizing the incredible positive impact of that choice for their grandchildren, if there is any special support available for grandparents who are making that choice.
MS. REGAN: One of the things that we have money for in the budget is an alternate placement program, and that’s exactly the kind of thing that will happen through that. Children may not even come into our care. There may be another family member or a close friend who will want to be acting in the place of a parent, and we would be able to assist them financially to do that. We know that sometimes that would be the best place for those children to be, rather than to come into care with us. It might be a close family member or a close friend who might be able to do that. There may be financial issues that impede the way, so if we can help with some financial assistance to make that happen.
We know that our children have better outcomes when they’re in foster care than in many other settings. This is one way of providing that kind of care - sorry, rather than foster care, in a family situation is what I would say. Children who are in a family situation, whether it’s foster or otherwise, do better than children who are in many other types of placements.
MS. ROBERTS: I would appreciate learning from your department what that would look like concretely for a family. For example, I am thinking right now of a grandmother whose doorstep I have been on and who is currently raising maybe a 6-year-old. I’m sure that she would not want to risk - for families in those precarious situations, often any contact with your department is viewed as a risk and as scary. They want to protect their kids from being apprehended. What would that look like if someone has already made that choice in order to prevent a negative outcome for that child, but who is struggling in that situation?
MS. REGAN: Yet another one of the things that we’re looking at through transformation, is preventive work. Often, people’s contact with Community Services is when there’s a crisis. But there might be something going on early on in a family situation that - if we can change our focus or add to our focus to make it more prevention-related, then dealing with Community Services would not be the scary thing that a lot of people think of it being right now. That’s one of the things that we will be looking at, ways to engage with families who may have a small issue or something that may start as a small issue - it may be flagged through SchoolsPlus or whatever - that we will be able to assist with rather than waiting until everything gets to a crisis point, because then your outcomes aren’t as good as if we’d dealt with it early on. That would be one thing.
Whether it’s a grandparent who’s on social assistance, we would just treat them as if they were any other foster parent. I don’t know how to change the stigma of contacting child welfare overnight, but I think we have to take steps to make sure that people understand that we’re here to be supportive, and we’re not there to hurt their family.
MS. ROBERTS: Again, a very particular group that is vulnerable in our community is asylum seekers, people who have arrived here and are claiming refugee status. Because I am lucky to have the Halifax Refugee Clinic in my district, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about the multiple vulnerabilities of that group, including that, while they are eligible for income assistance and MSI, they often don’t have language abilities, never qualify for the Canada Child Tax Benefit until their immigration status is regularized. There are a number of distinctions, a number of things that make them a little bit different, in really significant ways, from general newcomers who are arriving through either government sponsorship or private sponsorship of refugees.
I know that there have been a number of attempts, or a number of conversations with the department, to try to inform front-line staff about some of those distinctions, yet there are still some real challenges when advocacy needs to happen, when folks are applying for the benefits for which they are eligible.
I would love to hear from the department about what steps are being taken to make that very vulnerable group, which in some cases also involves families with significant numbers of children - or families with children - to make sure that they are not falling through the cracks.
MS. REGAN: I think one of the things I mentioned yesterday is that we have a language line so that people who can’t communicate well can get assistance. Is it 200 languages? I think it’s available 24/7, so we do have that service.
We work very closely with ISANS on a number of issues, so if there’s anyone with refugee status, we would usually hear about a case through them, or they would hear about a case through us. We have a number of very positive collaborations with them. We’ve had a sewing group where women were training to do commercial sewing, and a number of them found employment through that. There are parenting groups, et cetera.
I just want to say that if you’re hearing that some of our front-line staff aren’t aware of what’s available, or anything like that, please contact us. There are a lot of staff and there are a lot of programs, and we just want to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks. If there’s anything like that, please do contact us.
MS. ROBERTS: Thank you for that answer. I actually had a letter drafted for you and your department, and I was waiting for some critical pieces of information and then the session started. Somehow there are never enough hours in these days.
Just to clarify, asylum seekers are not eligible for services through ISANS, so we really are talking about folks who are arriving here and then claiming refugee status in-country. In some cases, given the political context in the States, we have more of them arriving now. It is a small group, but a particularly vulnerable one that is distinct from other newcomers who are arriving in Halifax with refugee status already.
MS. REGAN: In terms of asylum seekers, they are eligible for income assistance. We do hear about asylum seekers. We hear about them through ISANS, we hear about them through the women’s centres. We do hear about them and we do our absolute best to assist them in any way we can.
MS. ROBERTS: We’re going to run out of time. I’m going to save our housing question for our next round. I’m going to ask one last general question, which is, we know that poverty is a risk factor for bad health outcomes, contact with the justice system, poor educational outcomes for the next generation. As the department has done the work of planning for transformation over the past number of years, I’m wondering if there has been work to track possible whole-of-government savings through actually raising the rates. If so, if you could comment on the results of that.
MS. REGAN: We have done some preliminary work and it would be, sharing with other departments to track folks to see what their outcomes were. We also know there has been work done in other provinces, so we do cross-jurisdictional scans - we can see their work. When you alleviate poverty, there definitely are generational savings to be had.
What I will say is, the reasons you raised are exactly why we’re doing some things like pre-Primary programming, because we know that children who get that pre-Primary programming have better educational outcomes. When they have better educational outcomes, they’re less likely to live in poverty. They have better health outcomes. They’re less likely to interact with the justice system. There is a whole host of things and that’s why for us, having a pre-Primary program, we feel very strongly, is a social program, quite frankly.
Whether it’s making sure that kids get fed in the morning when they go to school, because we know that children learn better when they have something in their bellies, then that’s another thing that we believe will impact generations. You can’t point to it and say, this is the increase this year, but what you can point to is the fact that the data shows that they have better outcomes overall.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the NDP caucus has expired for this round.
The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MS. BARBARA ADAMS: I want to start off by acknowledging that I was not here yesterday and so I may, in fact, repeat a question. Feel free to just say to me - or you’ll have a quick answer right there so we won’t worry about it.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The honourable member should be standing when asking the question, unless you have a mobility problem we’re happy to recognize.
MS. ADAMS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I’m going to be basically starting through the document that was provided when we came to this department to have an orientation. I do want to go on record as saying that it was a fantastic orientation, and the staff who presented it to us were clearly very proud of the work that they did, and the changes that they had been trying to bring about over several years and the work that they were going to continue to bring forward. I’m not used to seeing so many people so excited about their work and how happy they are, so I just want to make mention of that because it was really nice to see.
One of the first things that I want to do is to ask something about someone who specifically called me with a question because I want to be sure that I remember to get it in. When people are required once a year to do a review for their income assistance requirements, some are wondering if the requirements have changed or if, when they change caseworkers - one was now just implementing some policies that might have been in place that they were letting go. I just wanted to double-check on them. My understanding is that, for an annual review, there is a 60-day bank record. One of the questions I have is, are people allowed to redact out some of the items on there that might be of a personal nature, that they don’t want seen by their caseworker?
MS. REGAN: The question was about the 60-day bank records. The short answer is no, they have to know what money is coming in, what money is going out. But there are always exceptions, so it’s best to have a frank conversation with the caseworker. I’m trying to think of an example where money would be coming in - so let’s just say that it was before we instituted Mifegymiso and the woman decided she needed an abortion, and she got money from someone and she didn’t want to disclose that. That is the kind of thing, you have a frank discussion about that.
But through transformation, one of the things we are doing is asking ourselves, what do we really need to see? How much do we really need to know? We will be looking at what kinds of information we actually need to see.
I do want to assure the honourable member that if there is something odd there, it is just best to have a conversation.
MS. ADAMS: In this individual case, it is somebody who had not been required to show everything on their bank statement for a long time. When they got a new caseworker, suddenly they had to, so they were concerned that somehow this had changed things. The second requirement I am aware of is, the most recent rent receipt. So again, in a similar situation, the person had only been required to provide their lease, which is a year-long lease, but now they are required to show a rent receipt every month.
They got a letter saying you have to show us one rent receipt, and then they got a letter a couple of weeks later saying it was six months’ receipts. She is wondering, if you have the lease, why do you need to show the receipt? I mean, I’m assuming that you are still living there and you are paying your rent, but not necessarily. The question is, is it in fact one month’s rent that you have to show or six months’, because that’s what she’s being asked for now?
MS. REGAN: There is a certain amount of discretion that caseworkers have. If a client has had a good payment history, they probably would not require that. If there has been a question around some payments that were not made or late payments or something, they may actually go back and ask them to start proving it again.
It could be that that is the situation. We are moving to periodic receiving. If somebody has had a good payment history, then we are not going to need to see that. It may be when there is a new caseworker coming in, they are establishing a relationship. They may ask for that in the beginning. But a client can always say, look, I have had a good history, or they can always ask or alert them that they would like to move to that. Just have them explain to their caseworker that there hasn’t been a problem. But they might have been asked to show if there has indeed been a problem.
MS. ADAMS: I have another question that was brought to my attention yesterday. The letters that used to come to someone who is on social assistance, had down at the bottom, the name of the caseworker and their number. The most recent letter has a number like, almost like your social insurance number. It does not list the name of a person, which frankly they were upset about. I am just wondering if that was a policy change or whether it’s gone the way of maybe Veterans Affairs, where you don’t have a specific caseworker anymore, you now have a group of them. I’m just wondering if that was a deliberate change.
MS. REGAN: They do have dedicated caseworkers. But we do have a new telephone line and so people are now calling into that. That was actually one thing we heard from our clients. They did want to be able to get an answer, and that often happened when they were trying to reach their own caseworker, they were not getting that. We have people who are dedicated to answering the telephone, and 85 per cent of the time they can deal with client issues right on the phone.
They might not be getting their own caseworker when they call, but they are getting someone who can deal with theirs. But everyone has a caseworker.
MS. ADAMS: That is good to hear. I recognize that’s always a benefit when you don’t have to just wait for that one person. I guess I’m wondering why there was no name at the bottom of the letter, though. (Interruption) Okay. Thank you, that’s great.
I’m just looking at the opportunities for growth, on Page 6.2, and I’m just not sure if I’m reading it correctly. Under Funded Staff, it says that there were 1,630 staff estimated in 2016 and then 1,614 - so 16 less staff was the actual versus the estimated. Then I noticed for 2017-18 it is 1,603, so there are about 27 less staff. One of the things I do get told a fair amount is that they can’t get anybody on the phone when they first call, so I’m just wondering how that happened.
MS. REGAN: This is one of the questions I answered yesterday, but it’s okay. It is something that sticks out, so I understand. The FT changes relate to transformation and that does represent a net reduction, but they are not going to be realized this year. We recognize that we may be doing less receipt-checking but we may need more social workers, so there will be moving about, there is no doubt about that, and this will all happen through attrition. There will be no job losses. It will happen over time. There will not be 25 people going out the door this fiscal.
MS. ADAMS: I like the idea of efficiencies leading to other increases in services, so I’m happy to hear that. I’m just on Page 4 of the critic briefing, and under the outcomes for the department, it says: a system of supports and services, a balanced mixture of prevention and intervention. I am new to the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, so I was purely looking at the numbers for the budget. They seemed fairly similar from this year to last year. It’s my impression that it’s more heavily weighted on the intervention to get those out of critical or crisis situations and less on prevention. I don’t know that that’s a fair statement, but I know that there’s about $1 million for those types of programs. I’m just wondering if I’m correct in that assumption. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. I just want to be sure I’m understanding the numbers.
MS. REGAN: In terms of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, there is sort of a split, in that we have our transition houses, but the women’s centres do a lot of preventive work. They do incredible work. Not in metro - they’re in the rural areas, so there is a split there.
In terms of the DCS budget, about 6 per cent of our budget is focused on prevention. We were just speaking about wanting to increase that, because if we can assist a family early on when a problem is developing, and if we can head that problem off, we’re going to have better outcomes for children and families, and quite frankly, it will be less expensive for us. It makes much more sense to do some prevention work rather than waiting until we get into a crisis situation.
MS. ADAMS: There are a few low-income housing units in my constituency, but I have been to quite a number over the years. One of the situations we have is that people are now using cellphones, so they’re not having a home phone. But when you come to their building to buzz the buzzer, you need a home phone. I know a number of people where you can’t go to their home and buzz. You have to call them on a cellphone and hope they answer, but a lot of them don’t use daytime minutes because they can’t afford to do that.
The member for Halifax Needham mentioned the increased reliance on online registration and forms and all that stuff. In Eastern Passage, where we don’t have a library, we don’t have any Internet access, so we have made that available in my office. But we don’t have bus service out to certain areas, so they can’t get there for that. I have seen an increase in use of online services, so that is a huge issue for me.
I’m wondering whether we have reached a point where having the phone and the Internet are considered essential services if we’re going to require people to use them. I just wonder about the situation of people without a home phone, what they’re supposed to do because they can’t afford both a cellphone and a home phone, but for mobility reasons, they have a cellphone. I’m just wondering if you have run into that or if that’s just a local issue.
MS. REGAN: We haven’t run across that particular issue, although I know it exists because I went to visit my daughter, and she didn’t have a home phone. She had to come down and get me, and she has mobility issues. I have personally seen it, although we haven’t run into it to our knowledge. One of the things we were discussing earlier is the issue of phones, the fact that many of our clients don’t have any phones. Some are getting cellphones. We are exploring whether we can do something, a low-cost phone or - that would not solve the door issue, although I suppose you could call them or send them a text or something like that. But again, that is daytime minutes, so we are looking at exploring the idea of the cellphone, Internet usage, et cetera, but it is still in its infancy.
MS. ADAMS: While we are on communication, I had a number of calls where people had to go into the hospital and they had to pay for the phone service. I have had a few where they were in there for a month and half and the bills were astronomical. I’m wondering two things. Is there no way that we can make the hospital phone system a free or cheaper system than it is now? Those on social assistance are doing without phones in a hospital setting where they most need to hear from somebody.
The other is - to be honest, it occurred to me now as I was listening - is it possible, like we do in the QEII where the Internet is there and there is free Wi-Fi, is it not possible in the low-income buildings to provide free Wi-Fi service?
MS. REGAN: In the hospital, that is the Department of Health and Wellness. We do have some buildings that do have Wi-Fi in them. We are doing renovations so, where possible, we are adding that. For some, it would be challenging in terms of finances and just the way the building is constructed, et cetera. But we have added some and we will continue looking at seeing where it is feasible to add it.
MS. ADAMS: One of the other hurdles that those with low income or disabilities have, is the inability to purchase a gym membership and I have done a lot of free talks at the low-income housing on all sorts of health-related issues, exercises, fall prevention.
When I was in the rooms, it was like, how come you don’t have an exercise bike or treadmill or weights or something else? The usual response was that there was a liability issue. One of the questions I have tonight is, you know, the recreation facilities and all sorts of places, have found their way around those liability issues. Given the number of low-income housing that we have around the province, there is a unique opportunity to put a little bit of equipment in there that might make a very big difference to their health.
In the long run, there is a lot of unused exercise equipment out there being used as storage closets, so I’m just wondering if there is an opportunity here that maybe has not been considered, to provide some basic exercise equipment in those facilities.
MS. REGAN: Yesterday we were chatting away. I said I wasn’t above stealing good ideas. Thank you for that. We will look into that. Obviously, liability issues are always a concern, but there may be groups that we can partner with to help our residents maintain their mobility. We had a little discussion outside one day talking about that. That is a good idea: do we have the space and the appropriate equipment? Thank you for that. That’s something we will look into.
MS. ADAMS: On Page 8 it is talking about families and persons with disabilities. When you go through - I just pulled this, it’s a 2015 Halifax homeless point time count, and it just talked about the number of homeless people that there were in HRM at one given time. They self-identified 22 per cent as having disabilities. I’m well aware, because of my occupation, that there are an awful lot of people who, in my opinion, are unjustly denied disability benefits for, whether it’s WCB, CPP or LTD. In the old days, if you needed to get tests or have somebody document it, like a psychologist, CPP paid for it or WCB paid for it - well, LTD never paid for it.
I’m just wondering, because we had talked about it previously, is there any process in place through this for people to get support to help them fight for their benefits? If they’re not a unionized member, if they don’t have a lot of legal funds, there are an awful lot of people who have to turn to your services because they aren’t getting the benefits that they have been paying into, for sometimes 20 or 30 years.
MS. REGAN: I want to make sure that I understand your question. You’re asking, is there anything that we offer to assist our clients fight for, say, their WCB? I’m not aware of that, but I can tell you that, for example, at the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, they do fund lawyers who actually take on clients and actually fight WCB. There are workers’ advisers as well, so there are a couple of options there to actually help people.
As well, there are two injured workers associations, which LAE does fund, and they will often take on clients as well, to file claims and that. The lawyers - the workers’ advisers - they will look at the merits of the case. They won’t take on every case, but they will take on cases where they believe an injustice has occurred, where somebody is actually owed some money, where they feel that they can win. They do take on those and they frequently do win, so those are available.
MS. ADAMS: I apologize - I am aware of the Workers’ Advisers Program, which is a great model because you’re paying in for those benefits, but you’re not paying for any help to fight them if it’s LTD or CPP.
MS. REGAN: Actually, our caseworkers will often help with a CPP application.
MS. ADAMS: Does that also apply for LTD?
MS. REGAN: I don’t really run into a lot of those cases, but our caseworkers will do whatever they can to assist people to make sure they get the benefits to which they’re entitled. Sometimes that involves filling out other forms too.
MS. ADAMS: I am aware that LTD is usually financed by private insurance companies, whereas WCB and CPP are government funded, so maybe that’s why they’ve got a better system in place. I think it’s time that we have a look at, maybe possibly requiring the disability insurers to have to provide a similar service, because the disability reports that I wrote five, 10, 20 years ago, when I said somebody was disabled, they got their benefits.
I’m writing the same reports over the last five years, and I can tell you the increased numbers that are getting denied, despite the fact that I have 25-page reports that are the same as they were - actually they’re better now than they were 20 years ago. There is a systematic process across the province and across the country to deny people benefits that they’re entitled to. It’s forcing them all now to hire lawyers. Whereas before you could actually go and defend yourself with some support; now, it’s requiring lawyers. I used to say to people, go through the process once and then, if it doesn’t work, get yourself a lawyer and I don’t say that anymore. I’m thinking there might be an opportunity across departments and, again, it’s a much bigger issue because they’re being denied millions and millions of dollars and it’s falling on the government to subsidize that.
One of the other questions that I had is about - we’re now on the requirements for some of the programs and some of the benefits and a little bit of that is in housing, so I’ll save that for a little bit. One of the questions that I do get asked is, if a daughter is struggling and her brother moves in to help her, then her benefits are going to go down when she reports that he’s living with her and, yet, he deliberately moved in so that they could both try to survive. I’m just wondering if those conditions are being looked at.
MS. REGAN: Absolutely, that’s one of the things we’re looking at through transformation. We want people to be able to make choices about their lives and it may be the absolute right choice for a young woman to have her brother move in with her and having people pool resources is a good thing. We also don’t want to disadvantage couples. I realize we’re not talking about a couple in that case, but we don’t want to disadvantage couples. Couples think they have to stay apart, but to us, I think it makes sense that we would look at that because it’s not right, we don’t think, to penalize people in this case.
MS. ADAMS: I have had a couple of calls from couples in their 70s and 80s who were wondering whether it would be more economical for them to get divorced because of some of the funding issues, so I’m encouraged to hear that.
This other one is a point for clarification for me, when someone is receiving rent and when they get the damage deposit. If your rent is $700 and your damage deposit is $350, I’ve been asked the question if they’re only given $535 for their rent, they’ve been told that if their damage deposit is more than what the half is, that they weren’t going to get any damage deposit. I don’t know whether that was an isolated case, but I had a call just recently where someone’s rent was $600, so the damage deposit would have been $300 and they didn’t give them the $260, so my question is, is that an isolated case?
MS. REGAN: In that particular case, send the person or bring the person - get the information for us and we’ll deal with that one because that doesn’t sound right.
MS. ADAMS: I did send them to you but I guess they haven’t called yet, so we’ll hope.
One of the questions on Page 13 under income assistance rates, it says that under certain circumstances someone could get more if they’re fleeing abuse; disabled; 55 or older; or has chronic mental, cognitive, or physical conditions that limit participation in employment. I have had some people call to say, I don’t have a family doctor, so who can substantiate that I have either a cognitive or physical condition? To see any private health professionals is anywhere from $75 to $150, so I’m just wondering, who is allowed to certify those things and who would pay for that? Thanks.
MS. REGAN: It would depend on what the person’s particular disability was, who they would be seeing to have it diagnosed. If they didn’t have a doctor and they needed a diagnosis, let’s say from a psychologist, we would pay to have that done.
MS. ADAMS: I’m going to ask you to clarify that. I’m wondering whether it covers physiotherapists, social workers, or anybody else.
MS. REGAN: We are going to check to be sure who can make those referrals, but it doesn’t always have to be a physician that does it. I don’t know which, so we would have to look at each kind of case and find that out for you.
MS. ADAMS: I realize that the Minister of Health and Wellness is not here, but one of the things I have seen escalate more than anything else in health care is the need for documentation of disability, so there almost needs to be a separate process for that piece. I have patients who went to the doctor 10 times; eight of them were to fill out paperwork and only two were actually for health issues. I think we’re relying on doctors to write an awful lot of letters and reports. Frankly they’re all tired of it, because it is time-consuming. I know for me it’s a specialty. I think, especially for those on special assistance, there needs to be that process considered.
Under the diagram, the diagram under special needs, under medical equipment - I know when I do my fall prevention talks in low-income housing, most of them can’t afford a walker or a cane. They can borrow something from the Red Cross if it is available to them but they can’t keep them longer than three months. When I worked in Ontario, we had the assistive devices program, the ADP program. Pretty much anybody who needed those level of mobility aids, they all got them.
I know that people don’t see them the same way I do. They are as essential, if not more so, than your glasses. I’m wondering if there is any opportunity - I don’t know what the funding is for medical equipment. I know they all say they can’t get walkers and canes unless they have private health insurance, so I’m just wondering, is there any potential here to look at providing permanent assistive devices? I can guarantee you it would cut the health care costs down if we could do that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I just want to remind the honourable member, and all members for that matter, it is not appropriate to recognize the absence or the presence of any member in the House. Thank you.
MS. REGAN: We do fund things like walkers and canes. We do. We also have a wheelchair recycling program which we do with the assistance of Easter Seals, so that is available there. We also have a new program that provides assistive devices that will help people get or maintain their employment. It could be hearing aids, wheelchairs, et cetera. I realize that is for work, but those are available as well.
MS. ADAMS: I was not aware that they funded walkers and canes. I would be happy to pass that on. Just one other thing, under the child protection program. I was looking at some of the statistics and I wanted some clarification. I think it said that last year there were 11,000 reported cases of suspected abuse or neglect and that there were 1,300 substantiated cases where it led to intervention and the child being removed from the home, if I recall that correctly.
I’m just wondering if the number of cases of kids being removed has been going steadily up or steadily down. If it’s going down, which would be great, to what do you attribute that? I like success stories.
MS. REGAN: We have seen the number of substantiated cases going down and the number of children being removed from houses. Part of that is just demographics, we have fewer young people. I was explaining yesterday that in a healthy population, you want your population to look like this: you want lots of young people, a medium amount of worker bees and you want seniors at the top. Nova Scotia’s population is upside down, so we don’t have as many young people. That’s probably part of it.
Also, because we do have some money for prevention, we are interceding earlier in a lot of cases. The other thing is that there is a general societal disapproval of child abuse. It used to be that kids got whacked, kids got spanked, et cetera. That is not tolerated as much now, so things like that get reported earlier, so we are often intervening earlier, before things get really bad.
Is the rate going down as quickly as we’d like? No, it’s not, we have more work to do around prevention, which we were discussing earlier. I will say that the cases that do come in, the children who do come to us, often their cases are more complicated and they may have special needs, they may be medically fragile. We may have fewer cases but they may be more complicated, many of them.
MS. ADAMS: I think my next question is sort of moving into the housing side of things. I recognize that I have only a few minutes so they are not going to be too complicated. I’ll start with just one. Referencing back to the homelessness point in time from 2015, they had documented that there were 284 people who were homeless that one day that they went out to canvass, 67 per cent of them were male, and of all of them, 31 per cent had been homeless for more than a year.
I know that the wait time for housing can be quite a lengthy one, so I’m just wondering, we do have a lot of homes for women and children. I don’t know how many homes we have for the men across the province. I’m just wondering how many we have in metro and if there are any plans to perhaps increase that, given that the majority of the homeless, especially those for longer than a year, are male.
MS. REGAN: In metro, Shelter Nova Scotia has five shelters, four of which are for men, the largest of which is Metro Turning Point. It’s at capacity. What we’ve been doing is focusing on getting people into secure housing rather than precarious, so we’d rather put our money into getting people into permanent positions. We do have permanent housing, so we do have housing support workers who work with folks who don’t have a home, to get them into a place where they can have success. I think it was 50 who were placed last year under Housing First. We have rent supplements that are tied to them specifically, as well, so that we can get them into a secure place because, often, that’s what they need before they can move on to anything - making any other changes in their lives.
MS. ADAMS: Just referring to one of the Budget Addresses on Page 12, it states here that housing is a priority of course for the government and it says that, this year, $38 million will help create new affordable housing units including new small options homes and offer more in rent supplements. I’m wondering whether that $38 million that’s creating new housing units, how many of them are being taken out of circulation because they’re too old? I’m wondering if there’s going to be a net increase in the number of housing units or whether this is replacing ones that are being taken out of circulation.
MS. REGAN: We’re going to have to ask our housing folks to come in here now, but it’s $38 million for rent subsidies and new housing. There is some housing that has chronic vacancies, is falling down, and we are going to take that out of circulation because no one wants to buy it, no one wants to live in it, none of that stuff, and it doesn’t make sense to keep it while we’re still responsible for paying taxes, whatever - but it is an increase, yes.
MS. ADAMS: One of the things that I saw repeatedly, especially for those of lower income - not necessarily on social assistance - is the requirement for some of the grants for home renovations, like a wheelchair ramp or a lift or modification of the home indoors. The income level is so low that if they had that low an income, even with the grant, they weren’t going to be able to afford the renovation. I have a number of people that I know the families were not willing to bear the burden of the renovation because they were trying to support their own families. They more quickly reached the point of, I’m going to put the person in the nursing home because they could not afford the home renovations.
One of the things that they all asked and it certainly seemed more reasonable to me is, can we raise the income level and raise the grant level for home modification? If we want everybody to age in place, if they can’t get the wheelchair or the walker through the bathroom door, they cannot stay home.
MS. REGAN: I just have to turn my book around so I can look at all of this stuff. Actually, the income levels, it’s households up to $39,000 for one, $35,000 for another, $50,000 - so there are some. It’s not low incomes as it’s often defined, I have to say. The maximum assistance, $5,000. Some are loans, $20,000. There’s a variety of different programs there, with different income levels. I just wanted to make you aware of that. It doesn’t work for everybody.
The one that I talked about with the $50,000, that’s actually mortgage funding, that’s a different program altogether, sorry.
MS. ADAMS: One of the things that it’s hard to calculate is how much of that household income is not disposable income. It’s going towards medications and home care that they are paying for on their own, which if you have to pay for somebody to live in your home 24 hours a day, it’s approximately $6,000. People are choosing whether they’re going to go on vacation or they’re going to buy mom a wheelchair.
I know that income level sounds relatively high, but they are spending a disproportionate amount on health care and home care and often family members have left their job to look after the family member, even if it’s only on a part-time basis.
I know the income level sounds high but when you spend an awful lot of it on disability products and services and the $2,000 for the psychology assessment and the whatever, hearing aids, $8,000, depending on what your hearing is, it isn’t a lot of money. Again, I want us all to be aware that there are people - the most essential skill is to be able to go from your bedroom or living room to the bathroom. If the hallways are too narrow or the shower stall doesn’t allow you to get in, that single barrier puts you right in a nursing home.
The last thing I want to ask is just a couple of things about the home renovations. We’ve had meetings with the Construction Association of Nova Scotia and I have quite a few friends who are home renovators. One of the issues that comes up is how quickly the companies get paid. There is the usual requirement to be paid within 30 days but by their own estimation, and I have no reason not to believe it because everyone I know says it is at least 60 if not 90 days, where there seems to be a very systemic policy of not paying your bills on time. I’m just wondering if the government has looked at that.
What I’m being told is that when contractors - especially the smaller ones who don’t have big floats in the background - can’t afford to bid on the next project, that the cost of all projects goes up. I know you can’t control what happens in the private sector but I’m just wondering if the public sector, especially with the renovations you’re doing for our houses that you maintain, if there is a policy in place for the 30-day payment and if that is, in fact, happening.
MS. REGAN: What happens when there’s one of our renovation projects that’s done through one of our projects, at the end of it, the contractor would present the owner with a bill. There would also be a form that certifies that this work has been done. The builder signs that yes, it has been done. The homeowner agrees that yes, it has been done. They sign off on it. They send it in to us. There is no policy to delay payment or anything like that. Once we receive it, it is paid.
MS. ADAMS: I don’t know if the member is aware of this, but the respondents who were surveyed, again, indicated that delayed payment occurs approximately 55 per cent of the time in the public sector. They broke it down by level of government. Federal was 18 per cent, municipal was 18 per cent, and provincial was 29 per cent. In the private sector, it was 40 per cent. That’s a 30 per cent rate being reported provincially. I recognize that your programs may be paying on time, but maybe not all are, so I just wanted to draw your attention to that.
I would like to cede the rest of my few minutes to the honourable member for Cape Breton-Richmond.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton-Richmond.
MS. ALANA PAON: I just have a few questions because I only have a few minutes here. I just wanted to ask the minister about the line item under community-based programs in the budget. I was wondering if you could extrapolate exactly what kind of services would fall under community-based programs, just to start off with. That’s the Disability Support Program, just to make certain that I’m clear.
MS. REGAN: Under community-based programs, we have homes and services that enable children and adults with disabilities to remain fairly independent in community settings, either in their own homes or in small supportive care and supervision arrangements in homes with four or fewer beds. These programs and services would include independent living support, so that’s a semi-independent living arrangement for people who require a minimum of support, someone coming in to check on them.
Direct Family Support, or Flex, is for families who can care for a family member with a disability at home, and that includes some funding for them, for the family to purchase respite services for example. There’s Flex for adults - that’s Flex family; Direct Family Support for Children; and then there’s a new Flex independent program as well. There’s Alternative Family Support, and that provides support for basic routine care activities. Those would be things like dressing, eating, bathing, that kind of thing, routine home and community activities. Alternate families receive financial compensation to help offset the costs associated with care.
Small options - sometimes they’re referred to as community-based options, or CBOs - they provide care for up to four persons with disabilities in a purchased or rented unit. Then, the adult service centres - they’re also referred to as rehabilitation workshops - we have 30 adult service centres and eight residential day programs. Those are located across the province. They provide day programs, training, and employment opportunities for almost 2,000 people.
MS. PAON: I would like to ask the minister if she is familiar with - perhaps this is coming across her desk - a project on Isle Madame for a small options home. I’m seeing a nod, so I’m thinking that’s favourable. The project included the construction of a new four-bed community home and, as well, we used to have a wonderful group of Catholic nuns who used to live on Isle Madame called Les Filles de Jesus. I was actually taught by some of them in school. It was very good learning for me. They had passed on to, I think, the association that is there, the convent that they used to live in. Part of the project that was announced on April 28, 2017, also included three respite beds for the renovation of the convent. I was wondering if the minister could speak to me - because the announcement did come out under the Department of Community Services - if that project is still going to go forward.
I apologize, minister, I’m going to add since I only have a few moments left, it was also announced as part of that government announcement that it was investing up to $600,000 annually - and I will recognize that that came out through the Department of Acadian Affairs and Francophonie and the Department of Community Services - so I’m just wondering what the amounts will be, as well, that will be invested in this fiscal year and in the coming years as well.
MS. REGAN: That was to the Hearts of Isle Madame to the small options home there. We’re currently working with the proponents to determine who would be going in there, and to see what other services we could also attach to that particular project. We’re expecting that it’s part of this fiscal’s budget, so we have to get our construction under way in the new year.
MS. PAON: Just to make certain that I’m clear that the government is looking to invest in this project as it stood with the announcement, and that it should be shovel-ready in the coming fiscal year.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired for the Progressive Conservative caucus. We’ll now move to the New Democratic Party caucus.
The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. LISA ROBERTS: Mr. Chairman, I do have a grouping of housing-related questions there. Thank you to staff. I think I’ll ask the first one while your staff member comes in because it’s primarily financial - just trying to understand a budget item. In the budget, supplementary information, under Housing Services, there’s a Housing Nova Scotia grant, that is, I believe, $40 million. Is that right? I’m looking for the thing where it’s - yes, $40 million. I want to understand clearly, is that the budget under which the budgets of each of the regional housing authorities is found and is there anything else there other than the regional housing authorities?
MS. REGAN: In terms of that $40 million, that is our provincial contribution to the housing authorities and to some other programs as well. But those housing authorities also get money from the federal government and from rent that they charge, and municipalities put a small amount of money into their housing authorities as well.
MS. ROBERTS: Just below that, the funded staff number of FTEs, 87.4 - where are those staff located? Are those staff in the regional housing authorities, or are they elsewhere?
MS. REGAN: Those are Housing Nova Scotia employees - not just here at head office. There are four regional offices. They do not include the housing authority staff.
MS. ROBERTS: I understand from conversations in my constituency, where we have a good number of housing authority buildings - I have a rather complex staff spreadsheet so I can keep track of the people I need to reach - that somehow the regional authority’s hiring is constrained by the provincial government, in terms of a cap on FTEs.
The Nova Scotia NDP caucus, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, has asked a number of questions related to use of temps and use of overtime. A portion of that is driven by our experience of knowing of the very long-term use of temps by the regional housing authorities because they are constrained from hiring, in some fashion, by the provincial Public Service cap on FTEs.
I’m wondering if the minister can comment on that or clarify that situation.
MS. REGAN: There is no number where we say, you can only have X number of employees. They’re not government employees, so we can’t direct them. They are given a budget. They have to live within that budget, but it’s not anything that we’re saying you have to have X number of FTEs and you can’t have any more. They just have to live within their budget.
MS. ROBERTS: That’s good to clarify. Thank you for that answer. I wanted to ask about the rationale for the increased use of rent supplements. The minister made reference earlier to Housing First. I understand that Housing First is a partially federally-funded program where rent supplement is a portion of the support that is provided, but there is a whole host of wraparound supports for people who participate in the Housing First program and, at least, the last I checked, it was fully subscribed and therefore not accepting any new people. On the other hand, there’s just rent supplements which I understand are partly being used because it is less expensive per client than buying or actually supporting the construction investment in new social housing units.
I hear a lot of concerns about rent supplements in terms of its long-term sustainability and impact on people’s outcomes especially when those units may be far away from wraparound services. Not everybody needs the full Housing First meal deal but they still might need some supports that are available, more so in neighbourhoods like the one that I represent. Can the minister comment on the increased use of rent supplements?
MS. REGAN: One other thing about rent supplements is, if you flip that around you’re saying that they’re far away from supports but the flip side is that it also gives folks a chance to live where they want, because in the past, social housing was only in certain places and, in fact, sometimes that increased stigma. When you have rental units that are mixed in among other folks, there’s less stigma attached. You can argue both, but I do take your point that our folks may need to have some perhaps in areas where they may be closer to housing supports.
MS. ROBERTS: I’m going to pass the floor to my colleague, the member for Dartmouth North to continue with her questions. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth North.
MS. SUSAN LEBLANC: I asked this question yesterday. I’m wondering if the minister has had a chance to gather the information on the Career Seek program. Just to remind you of the question, how much is allocated in this budget for the Career Seek program? How many participants are anticipated for this year and how many people have received support from the program last year?
MS. REGAN: I just want to make sure that there are no further housing questions. Anyone else? Going once. No, you can’t ask . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We’ll come back to the Progressive Conservative caucus when the hour expires. If there are further questions, you can ask them at that time.
The honourable minister has the floor.
MS. REGAN: How much funding is allocated to the Career Seek program? Career Seek has a budget of $135,000. This is inclusive of tuition costs, data plans, student fees, books, campus integration, child care, and transportation. In terms of how many participants are involved, there are currently 15 students in Career Seek, 10 of whom are in their first year. The remaining five are in their second, third, or fourth years of study. Fifteen this year is up from 12 last year.
MS. LEBLANC: I began asking this question - I think this was the last one I’d asked when the time ran out, so I’ll just ask it again. The Prevention Innovation Fund grants, established as part of the Sexual Violence Strategy, have been successful in providing access to funding for a number of diverse organizations. Last Spring, Avalon Sexual Assault Centre launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the prevention and critical intervention services they provide.
The question is, can the minister describe how existing services are being supported through the renewed funding for the Sexual Violence Strategy?
MS. REGAN: The breakdown of spending for sexual violence prevention and supports for 2017-18 - we have a budget of just over $1 million. There’s $385,000 to identify and implement promising best practices for preventing and responding to sexual violence within the Nova Scotia context, with specific emphasis on (1) prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people and (2) sexual violence and technology.
That will include evaluating key components of the Sexual Violence Strategy, including Prevention Innovation and Community Support Network Grants, and developing a promising program pilot - the things that worked, based on evaluation results - and implementing in some locations that have the potential for broader provincial rollout, and then distributing Prevention Innovation grants to community-based groups.
Then with $300,000, we’re increasing the capacity of the three existing sexual assault centres to deliver therapeutic counselling. That funding will be transferred to the Department of Health and Wellness to support sexual assault therapeutic counselling services at Avalon, Antigonish, and Colchester sexual assault centres.
There’s $60,000 to ensure that when sexual violence occurs, responses by government systems are trauma-informed and provide victims and survivors with choice and voice in the process. There’s work in government systems to identify gaps and areas that need to be addressed, and to provide resources such as training and supports to address gaps as necessary. This may include recommendations around policy and legislative changes.
There’s $110,000 to continue to strengthen the social norms across Nova Scotia that encourage healthy and respectful relationships and that assist Nova Scotians in seeking help and support. That is to develop a new public awareness campaign that’s broad and sustainable and will involve a more targeted promotion of the materials in schools, communities, and workplaces.
There’s $60,000 to increase the capacity of Nova Scotians’ individual, community, and system levels to response to sexual violence by expanding the content and reach of the prevention training. That includes creating new content focused on the experiences of African Nova Scotians, as well as sexual exploitation and human trafficking, and to promote work and work toward the integration of training into systems such as government, schools, colleges, universities, and communities. Then there is $140,000 in administrative cost to support the work, including one salary FTE, general administration cost, website maintenance, youth engagement, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
MS. LEBLANC: Thank you for that list, I appreciate the details. But I wanted to clarify, are those all new programs under this new investment or are these existing programs that you are sort of refunding or adding to their budgets?
MS. REGAN: This was a three-year strategy that previously - so this year, the money I read out to you, that is what we are doing this year. The three-year strategy ended. Now we are doing these other things. If we look at what we funded last year for example, Leave Out Violence is an organization that has been around for a long time. I met with them in my role as Minister responsible for Youth. They wanted to try something different, so we gave them a grant to do something around sexual violence. Part of that money is about promising practices. With the grants, we tried different things to see what worked out in communities.
MS. LEBLANC: Can the minister provide an update on where the department is in establishing multi-year funding agreements with the organizations, for instance the Avalon Centre - the three that you mentioned, Avalon in Antigonish and was it Colchester?
MS. REGAN: We have corporate agreement management at the department. We are sort of upping our game there. That is what I would say there in terms of expectations and outcomes. I can tell you that corporate agreement management has resulted in numerous project agreements. We are in varying stages of implementation of multi-year agreements. Avalon in Antigonish, for example, we have drafts with them. We are not done yet. We are in conversation with them. We have drafts.
MS. LEBLANC: Speaking of sexual violence, I have been going back and forth on whether I am going to ask this question. But I am going to ask it because I feel like if I don’t I will regret it. This has been a couple of rough weeks in terms of women’s issues in the media.
Of course, early on this week, we heard the probably not surprising but shocking allegations against Harvey Weinstein by numerous Hollywood actresses about sexual violence towards them, covered up by many people in his circle, in his employment.
Over the last couple of hours, I’ve been on Facebook and looking at some really disturbing comments made by Frank magazine, again, following the thing that was in the news earlier about the racist depiction of El Jones in Frank magazine. There were some people who were commenting and criticizing Frank magazine for that, and then the criticism back was, in this particular case, around Lucy DeCoutere whom we all know accused Jian Ghomeshi of sexual violence.
I just - sorry if I get a little emotional about this. I also find on this, the International Day of the Girl Child, on this Women’s History Month, all of these things in this historical House where we have 17 female members and in our historical caucus where we have five female members, I wonder if the minister could share her thoughts on how we, in this House, including the male members who I frankly have seen, perhaps, want in their ability to - how shall I put this? - truly stand up for women in terms of women who have been possible victims of sexual violence or domestic violence.
I’m wondering if you have any thoughts around this as the Minister of Community Services and the Minister responsible for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women Act about how we could bring leadership to this House and leadership to Nova Scotia around these issues so that community members who are watching this stuff happen, who are experiencing it, our children who are watching us in this House, how we can look to them and say we are actually making meaningful change and being leaders in an area of such serious - I don’t know how to put that - serious violence, I guess. I’ll just leave it there and I’m wondering if you could comment on that.
MS. REGAN: We are in the process of developing a Domestic Violence Strategy. I think it’s a scourge on society, so I’m pleased that this is one of the things that we’re dealing with. In terms of sexual violence, the hiring process just closed for two sexual violence prosecutors, and that’s in the Department of Justice. Because the prosecution services are arm’s length from government, we don’t choose who we hire. They do the hiring.
We did something like this at the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, where we brought in a special prosecutor for occupational health and safety infractions. We had someone who was devoted part time, but we actually made the determination that we would hire someone and, not long after that, we saw the - I have to choose my words carefully here because we are at arm’s length - the prosecution service lay the first-ever charge in Nova Scotia under the Westray law. When you have specialized prosecutors, I think you have - not that there’s anything wrong with any of our other prosecutors - but I think there’s a level of training that they bring, not only to their work but they can, in fact, inform others’ work on it, so I’m very pleased to see that that is happening. I think it’s been a long time coming.
I would also say that the domestic violence court - I’ve attended the court in Sydney shortly after it was first implemented. It will now be made permanent and, in fact, we’ll be expanding that to Halifax. I think these are positive things. Are we there yet? No, we still only have 17 women here in this House. We are still not at 51 per cent. There will be legislation coming forward on domestic violence. We promise that. I think it was in our platform but, if not, it was in the Speech from the Throne that this will happen.
We’ve taken the three-year strategy on sexual violence and we’ve made it part of the work of government. It’s going forward. It’s not just a three-year strategy that happened, and then we all fold up our tents and go home. This is part of ongoing work here in Nova Scotia. I think it’s important work and I’m very pleased to be the minister who is leading a lot of it.
MS. LEBLANC: Yesterday we asked a question about the burnout with front-line social workers in child protection, child and youth protection. I have a clarifying question about the caseload numbers because you gave us an average that, I think, the average was 12 cases, but I was wondering if when those averages were calculated, are managers included when averaging the average caseload per worker?
MS. REGAN: Those numbers were accurate as of September. They’re very recent numbers. Managers do not carry caseloads unless they’re in very small offices, but that would not be the norm.
MS. LEBLANC: To clarify, in small offices, they may carry some caseloads and sometimes I think it may be true - correct me if I’m wrong but I believe it’s true - that if there are absences, that managers will pick up cases to fill in. Just to clarify, in those particular cases, are they included in the caseload averages?
MS. REGAN: Managers never carry cases. Supervisors sometimes do, and obviously, staff do. The ones that are with supervisors are not included, we don’t include that. It’s just in the staff.
MS. LEBLANC: Thanks for that clarification. Yesterday, the minister mentioned that there are occasional spikes in caseloads. Can the minister provide a range of what caseload numbers could look like? Not the average but what would be the highest amount that has occurred - not the average but the higher amount - the highest amount let’s just say.
MS. REGAN: We wouldn’t have that information here but I want to assure the honourable member that when we see caseloads climbing, we take action. We have the ability to shift staff around to make sure that they don’t climb up over acceptable, internationally-recognized standards, so we can take action when we do see caseloads climbing.
MS. LEBLANC: I guess this next question speaks to that a little bit. My question is, the minister said yesterday that her department is talking to supervisors and managers to see how you can improve situations, and now the minister has referred to the fact that, when caseloads get out of hand or out of control, then action can be taken. That’s good news. I’m wondering if there are discussions that happen with front-line workers themselves.
MS. REGAN: We have been bringing together groups from various areas. This year our focus has been on training for the CFSA. Those have been larger groups. We do meet with smaller groups and different groups who perform different services within DCS. We do bring them in as well.
MS. LEBLANC: Given all of that, I just - it flummoxes me, I guess is the word, because I have heard first-hand accounts from people who work with the department that caseloads are well above 20. I know that 12, or whatever the number was, is an average, so obviously, there are some around 20.
I have heard that caseloads have increased from 20 to 40 in some cases. If that is actually happening, acknowledging that your department is humungous, what is the recourse for a front-line worker who has 40 cases all of a sudden on their desk? What do they do?
MS. REGAN: Often our children move around the province, so you may have a case, for example, where a worker, say in Sydney - I just pulled that place out of the air - has five children on their caseload but those five children are actually living elsewhere in the province. While technically it is still part of their caseload, it is not part of their workload because there is another social worker elsewhere in the province who is actually performing the courtesy oversight of that child, so that may be where some of this is coming from.
What we are focusing on is workload, because someone can have some really complex cases that take up a lot of time, whereas someone else will have more cases, but they are simple and straightforward cases. Some of our children have complex needs, some of them have been through a lot, so some of those cases are simply more complicated along the way.
MS. LEBLANC: How, therefore, does the department define acceptable workload versus acceptable caseload? Because yesterday when I asked about caseloads - I mean, when I asked about this you gave me numbers for caseloads, so I would be interested to know what the difference is. Also, given what you’ve just said, I wonder if you could comment a little bit on the survey of the worker happiness quotient, or whatever it would be called, where numbers were startlingly low in terms of workplace happiness.
MS. REGAN: Our social workers have national and provincial bodies that oversee - they’re the ones who tell us what’s appropriate in terms of complexity and workload and all of that. Our supervisors, they’re the ones who tell us what new tools we need. Yesterday we spoke about, would it make it easier for a social worker if they had a laptop so they could file reports? They didn’t have to come back to the office to do this kind of thing. That’s part of why we’re looking at, can we provide more tools for this.
I want to be really clear here that I don’t want to minimize the type of work that our social workers are doing. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. It’s very stressful and I would not want to minimize the effect of that. You add into that change, that’s what transformation is all about, and change is hard, so we recognize that we need to communicate more and communicate better to our staff as we’re going through this process. Any time people think that their job is going to - not a lot of us - maybe people in this particular room thrive on change but a lot of people do not. Change is difficult, change is hard, so we recognize that we have some work to do there. I just want to be very clear that I well recognize that our social workers have tough jobs and we really do appreciate the work they do.
MS. LEBLANC: I will point out that when we talked about burnout in these jobs a couple of weeks ago, it was in consultation with the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers who I think, as a body, are feeling the pressure of the burnout.
Yesterday, we asked about whether the department tracked the demographics of clients particularly in terms of race and the minister said that the department has information about individuals who identify as Aboriginal, but not others. I’m wondering, what demographic information does the department collect in a systemic way and why is some data collected and not others?
MS. REGAN: The reason we know Aboriginal numbers is because those children are supported through Mi’kmaw Family and Children’s Services of Nova Scotia. That’s why we have good numbers there, but because people have to self-identify in terms of race, they’re not necessarily reliable numbers. People may not be disclosing it. People may not be disclosing it for very good historical reasons. Not everyone is comfortable with doing that, so we do not have reliable information on that.
MS. LEBLANC: But are the questions asked? Is there a place on forms or a place where you fill out race, whether it is self-identified or not? Is there a place for someone to identify?
MS. REGAN: When children are coming into care, there is no form that you fill out. Our intake workers sit down with the family and they discuss things. If the family discloses that the child is of African Nova Scotian descent, then there is a whole cultural plan that comes into play - if that is disclosed. But there is no box for people to tick that kind of thing off.
MS. LEBLANC: I just want to be clear, there is no box to tick off. But is the question asked, do you identify as a racial minority or of a particular race? I am asking because it is clear that in many cases, all of the issues that affect children in child protection services, people on income assistance, all of the issues that these communities face, those issues are magnified for people in racialized communities.
To me, it seems important to be keeping track of those numbers so that perhaps we can look at policies to address those inadequacies and inequalities.
MS. REGAN: Yes, we do ask that.
MS. LEBLANC: Has the department considered negotiating a bus pass for ESIA recipients, similar to the agreements that universities and HRM have negotiated for their students?
MS. REGAN: Yes.
MS. LEBLANC: When can I tell my constituencies that is going to be happening?
MS. REGAN: Alas, we are still negotiating.
MS. LEBLANC: In all seriousness, I am very happy to hear that you are thinking about that because obviously, as you know, and we all know, access to communities and an ability to be less isolated is very important for social inclusion and health.
I’m wondering about the poverty strategy, the $2 million that has been budgeted for a plan to study poverty. Can you tell us what that $2 million will pay for? That’s the first question.
MS. REGAN: When I’m able to share with the House exactly what we’re going to do with that, I will be happy to share it with you, but at this point, I can’t outline all the steps. What I can tell you is that this is an action-oriented plan. It is not to create a document that’s going to sit on a shelf somewhere. What we’re looking to do is to prevent more people from coming into economic insecurity. We want to increase their quality of life. We want to get people who are in poverty, out of poverty and - I’ll be darned if I can read that - build strong communities.
We’ll be engaging communities throughout this. We’ll be making smart allocations of resources and we’ll be looking at things through a low-income lens. I wish I were able to share with you more of our plans at this point, but the $2 million is not to create a plan. I know that certain people were running around saying, you’re just spending $2 million making a plan or $20 million making a plan. This is to operationalize the plan.
MS. LEBLANC: Just to be clear, are you not able to share with us the details because they just haven’t been hammered out yet, or is it because you need to keep it confidential for a rolling out of an announcement? I’m just wondering when we’ll know. I’ll ask that first.
MS. REGAN: I’m not able to share the details of the plan at this time.
MS. LEBLANC: Can you tell us, in the plan, will there be any money to go toward ESIA clients?
MS. REGAN: To rephrase that, I’m not able to share details of this plan at the time.
MS. LEBLANC: Hopefully, this is not too in depth on the plan, but do you anticipate that there will be legislated targets as part of the plan for the way the strategy rolls out?
MS. REGAN: I will be happy to share details of the plan with you when I have them.
MS. LEBLANC: Thank you. I was wondering, just one more quick question before I pass it on to my colleague, the member for Halifax Chebucto. In terms of the increase in supports for foster families, how many children will benefit from the change for the increased supports and increased money?
MS. REGAN: There are currently about 1,050 children in the care of the minister. All those children who are in foster care will benefit. Of that 1,050, there are 868 who will benefit directly from that. The other children are often in and out of foster care but they’re also receiving assistance for things like additional opportunities to move into careers, to get education, things like that that we’ve spoken about previously, those particular programs. They also benefit from that.
MS. LEBLANC: Mr. Chairman, I’m going to turn it over to my honourable colleague.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Leader of the New Democratic Party.
MR. GARY BURRILL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would like to direct a few questions of a more general nature related to incomes. First, is it in fact the case that every recipient of income assistance in Nova Scotia would have an income below the Statistics Canada low-income cut-off?
MS. REGAN: No, there actually would be some income assistance recipients who would have two children and who, because of the combination of provincial assistance and the new federal child credit, are above. It wouldn’t be a big number, but there are some who are above.
MR. BURRILL: Could the minister then provide some sense of the proportion, the percentage, of our overall social assistance caseload, where we would see the income level being over the Statistics Canada low-income cut-off?
MS. REGAN: We don’t have the breakdown here, where you have more than one child. We just have “with children” here. We know that single adults with children make up 17.3 per cent of our beneficiaries, and two adults with children make up 4.2 per cent of our recipients.
MR. BURRILL: Single adults with children would be 4.-something per cent - so would it then be reasonable to say that the percentage of the caseload whose income is above the Statistics Canada low-income cut-off would be under 5 per cent?
MS. REGAN: That may be right, but I wouldn’t want to speculate at this time. I don’t have those numbers.
MR. BURRILL: Would it be fair to ask the department to find an answer to that question, the percentage of the caseload? We’d appreciate having that information.
Going back to these disturbing reports we got in September about where our province ranks nationally on child poverty statistics, does the minister acknowledge the truth of those September reports that Nova Scotia has the largest number in Canada of households with children living in circumstances where the household income is below the low-income cut-off?
MS. REGAN: There are two different measures. There is LICO and there is LIM. We do better in national rankings with one than the other. What I can tell you is, I don’t think that people who are living in poverty care whether we measure it by LIM or LICO. They know they are living in poverty and that’s why we have a poverty-reduction strategy that we are working on, because we don’t think that what has gone on, quite frankly, has been working. I mean if it were simple, it would have been solved by now.
There are many factors that go into Nova Scotia, reason why Nova Scotians are living in poverty. No one department owns the solution. If the solution were simple, people would have done something by now. It has happened and we are trying to get a handle on the many reasons why people live in poverty. That is why we are doing what we are doing. I think you heard the Premier talk today, as a matter of fact, about the issue of maintenance enforcement and the role that plays, or does not play, in a family’s income. This has gone on for far too long.
MR. BURRILL: I think when statistics as shocking as the one we are talking about are published, as this was in September, I think it is a reasonable thing that people would wonder. Does our government, in fact, accept that this is the case? Is this really the case? I want to zero in with a little more precision on that question. Does the Minister of Community Services accept that we have the highest child poverty in Canada, that this is the case?
MS. REGAN: As I just indicated, I don’t think people living in poverty care whether we use LICO or LIM. They know that they are living in poverty and we know that it can’t continue, so this year’s budget provides targeted investments for at-risk youth. We want to prevent people from living in poverty, from starting off in poverty. We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to get a good education because we know that children, young people who have the opportunity to get an education are less at risk. They are less likely to have adverse health outcomes. They are less likely to come into contact with the justice system. We know that what past governments have done has not solved the problem. It has not been adequate and that is why we are committed to changing the way we are doing things. That’s why we have transformation.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired for the NDP caucus. I will now recognize the PC caucus.
The honourable member for Cape Breton-Richmond.
MS. ALANA PAON: I would just like to come back for few moments to the project we were talking about prior to the time elapsing the last time around. The project I am referring to includes the construction of a new four-bed community home next to the former Hearts of Isle Madame convent. It also includes the renovation of the convent from just three respite beds for temporary stays by persons with disabilities, along with the potential capacity for day activities for individuals in the community.
That is actually part of the press release that went out in April 2017. I just would like to confirm with the minister this project again. I understand it is going forward. I would like to know if both parts of the project are going to be going forward, if both of them are being funded as had been put out here in this press release for up to $600,000 - it says annually; not just this year, but annually. I’d like to know what is being invested in this project. Are both aspects, both the new construction for the community home for persons with disabilities, which I understand has four beds that will be constructed, as well as the convent renovations for respite care - are both of those sections of the project going to be going forward? Could the minister give me a timeline for the project, as well as what the amount of investment for both sections of that project will be?
MS. REGAN: At this point, we’re still waiting to hear back from the proponent about what it’s going to look like. There is money in the budget for the small options home. I can’t say to you that I know exactly what it’s going to look like today, because we have to hear back from the proponent. We have to know that they have people for that house.
At this point, I can tell you there is a project going in. What it looks like, I can’t tell you yet, because we’re waiting to hear back from the proponent.
MS. PAON: If I can just make certain that I’m clear - there is a project that has been put forward? If the minister could please clarify if there is money that has been earmarked, as this press release suggested in April 2017, of up to $600,000 annually for this project?
MS. REGAN: Yes.
MS. PAON: Thank you. As I like to keep it short and sweet, we’d like to get on to other things. That’s pretty much the answer I was looking for. If the minister would be so kind, perhaps I can also speak with you about this a little bit later on to get more details.
I’d like to pass this over to the NDP caucus again. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to do that, or you?
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Leader of the New Democratic Party.
MR. GARY BURRILL: I’d like to just pick up where we left off a few seconds ago. The minister has suggested, as I understood the answer, that the question I have asked is not something that low-income people in Nova Scotia would care about.
I’ll just reiterate the question: in the minister’s view, is it in fact the case that we have the worst child poverty in the country? I want to take exception to the minister’s suggestion that this would not be a relevant question for people of low income in the province. I think it would be fair to say that the answer I received was inadequately straightforward. It was incomplete.
I hope the minister won’t think me rude, because it does seem to me an important question. I want to try to say it again. We have these reports, which are dramatic and have caused a great deal of discussion. They naturally lead people to wonder, well, is something in our province being done not as well as it’s being done in other provinces? Why would it be that we are at the bottom of the pack?
Therefore, I think it’s a reasonable thing for people to wish to know the answer to the question. I’ll just ask it another time. In the minister’s view, these reports that came out in September, that we’re the worst in child poverty in Canada - are these, in fact, factual reports?
MS. REGAN: As I indicated to the member already, it is clear to me that successive governments have not done what we ought to have done, and that’s why we have a Poverty Reduction Strategy now.
There is no Party in here that’s covered in glory. Let me be clear on this. The honourable member’s Party actually decided in a budget not to pay people on social assistance one month, because, well, look at the budget. Because that way they could have a balanced budget.
Let me be clear here: there is no Party here that is covered in glory on this front. I’m here telling the honourable member that we are working on an antipoverty strategy. What has gone on in the past is not acceptable, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
MR. BURRILL: Mr. Chairman, I won’t repeat the question, then, if the minister doesn’t wish to speak further about it, but I will say in response to the minister’s comment that I think that this question is a reasonable enough one for people to be asking, that it is not, in fact, respectful to divert from an answer to a question of the minister’s evaluation of a past government. We are not talking about the past. In fact, we are talking about present, financially-based suffering, so I want to register that opinion before going on to my next question.
I want to just ask the minister simply, plainly, why does the department set levels for income assistance in such a way that so many people are left below the Statistics Canada low-income cut-off income?
MS. REGAN: We have a system that is 50 years old and people have been tinkering around the edges. They give a few dollars more here and there and nobody has been looking at why people are living in poverty or, if they have, they haven’t addressed it. What we have seen in the past is that we’ve kept - it’s this system that’s been built with buildings, with twine and wire and cobbled together and nobody sat down and said how do we get people out of poverty, what are the factors? That is why we’re making investments to make sure that young people can get education, because we know a good education, whether it’s in pre-Primary or whether it’s helping a young person get a college education at the community college and get a good job, we know that that makes a difference in a young person’s life. They are more likely to have good economic outcomes. They are more likely to have good health outcomes. They are less likely to be involved with the justice system.
We know that if we make the right investments and not just give a few dollars more every year, if we actually tackle the issue, we have a better chance of improving the lives of Nova Scotians who are living in poverty. It’s simple. This is the system we inherited from that government, that government inherited it from that government, and that government inherited it from this government. It all goes around. This is the system we have now and we’re going to transform it. I understand maybe the honourable member doesn’t think that’s a good idea and he’s welcome to his opinion, but I have to say that if we keep doing the same thing that we’ve always done, we’re going to keep getting the same thing we’ve always gotten. What we’ve gotten is - I can tell you that in the early 1990s, I remember watching a film about child poverty in Nova Scotia and it was heartbreaking and, guess what? It hasn’t changed. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.
MR. BURRILL: I accept everything that has been said about the inadequacy of things in the past but what I’m asking is, why in the five years in which this government has been responsible for these numbers, the decision has been made to have such a large percentage of the social assistance caseload living below the low-income cut-off?
MS. REGAN: I do want to remind the honourable member, and I realize that we haven’t flushed out a lot of details around this for the members in the House because it is still being worked on, but the whole concept about a standard household rate is that we will move more people towards adequacy. That’s why we have been making the investments that we have been making over the last while. I recognize that the honourable member may prefer that we don’t support young people going to college, and would prefer we give money in income assistance and not in employment support. Or they don’t want us to make investments to help young people get an education.
Certainly, we have heard all kinds of comments about pre-Primary and how we shouldn’t have done that and all of that. The fact of the matter is, this is what we’re doing now. The honourable member asks why we have not done more to move people towards adequacy. I do want to point out, that is where we found them at the end of the five years of the NDP. Let us be clear, if you’re going to say we have been in for five years, the NDP were in for five years as well. But during that five years, they didn’t get people out of poverty either.
We found people in poverty. That is where they were when we came into office. What we are doing now is addressing the causes of poverty. We are moving young people along because those are our new cohorts whom we are seeing. The children of our clients, for example, and those young people need to have hope. They need to know that there is more for them out there in the future. The $20 increase we made was the largest ever.
The terrible reality of all the investments that have been made in poverty by every Party over the years, is that it only made incremental changes until transformation. That is why we’re doing transformation now, because it can’t continue the way it was.
MR. BURRILL: I thank the minister for that answer, although I don’t understand why the minister would suggest that I wouldn’t wish to have people’s incomes or situations improved.
Let me go on to a related question. A few days ago, maybe last week, the minister was asked - this was in Question Period one day - about the alarming increase in the number of people in the province who are using food banks, particularly the increase since the present government has come to power. The context, I think, of that question, was the letter that appeared in the Cape Breton Post and The Chronicle Herald from Nick Jennery of Feed Nova Scotia, in which he was offering some criticisms of the present budget about poverty and child poverty for not addressing the escalating food bank use adequately, in his view. As I remember, the minister’s answer to this question - I wondered if the minister had almost been suggesting that day that she had some view that something was the case other than that Nova Scotia has the fastest-rising food bank use in the country, as Mr. Jennery had been pointing out.
I want to ask, does our Minister of Community Services accept as a fact that Nova Scotia’s food bank use is currently the fastest-rising in Canada?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for the question. I think my response to that particular question noted that the Hunger Count from 2012 had an almost-identical number when the NDP were in power as it did for us in 2016. I think that was the genesis for my particular answer.
MR. BURRILL: I’ll say again what I said before: in my view, in the context of the intense financial suffering of so many people in our province, for the minister responsible for this area to answer questions about this by denigratingly referring to a government of the past is inadequately respectful of the people on whose behalf I and my colleagues have been sent to ask these questions and given the job of holding the government to account.
I want to go back to - I think it was a question yesterday, but anyway, very recently - when the minister was asked about food bank use and also about what there was in the budget that would help make sure that people would be able to afford their food. In answer, the minister referenced the small grants that the department does make to food banks.
I want to ask, is it the view of the department that food banks have become an accepted part of the landscape of how we’re going to deal with hungry Nova Scotians - something that we take for granted, something that we now consider to be the situation that we’re going to be working with?
MS. REGAN: Successive governments have not funded food banks to any great extent, in part because we don’t want that to become part of what Nova Scotians rely on. This is not just a policy of the current government. It is the policy of past governments. In fact, I remember when Feed Nova Scotia announced that they were going to close because they did not want food banks to become the norm.
That’s why we’ve been working with our food bank partners and other community partners to look at the root causes of poverty and how to address them. That’s why this year we’ve included in our budget targeted investments for at-risk youth. In 2017-18, we’re investing $1.8 million to enhance employment support services for youth at risk, for preventive and early intervention programming. That includes three employment-focused programs to help prevent youth from attaching to the ESIA program or to provide immediate supports if they do attach to it.
We are also committing to implement a standard household rate, as I have indicated. That system will substantially increase benefits for all households on income assistance. We’ll introduce a new work incentive that ensures that the more clients work, the higher their net income will be. And that is a $20 million investment, for implementation in 2019-20.
Government has also increased investments of $1.2 million to further enhance the foster care program, including rate increases for foster family per diems, babysitting, and the implementation of automatic payments for travel and recreation - to diminish the administrative burden on these families. We know that children do better when they’re raised in a family and that is why we are putting money there.
Also, $1.1 million is being invested to continue efforts to reduce sexual violence and other family-focused prevention and early intervention programs such as Families Plus.
We have also made a commitment for a new guardianship program that will be implemented in 2018-19. DCS will deliver financial benefits to support children and young people to live with their family and relatives who are out of home. This is the children who are out of home but not yet in care of the minister.
The use of private families and guardians will promote stable relationships for children so they are better positioned for success. These children and youth may have open protection cases but they have not entered into the minister’s care.
We are also investing in our Disability Support Program. We are working to end our reliance on larger DSP residential programs. And we are moving toward smaller residential options while strengthening front-end non-residential programming that will allow residents to live more inclusively within their communities.
We are investing $750,000 to support more Nova Scotians with disabilities to live independently through the Flex independent program. The program provides funding participants who live independently with support from their families or personal support networks. Some of the participants told us that the Flex independent program helped remove barriers to transportation.
Other investments in 2017-18 include $2.1 million for the Disability Support Program to create new small option homes. As we heard with our colleague from Cape Breton, $1 million to begin to support DSP service providers with urgent health and safety-related infrastructure repairs; also $1 million to expand DSP day-programming options for persons with disabilities; $1 million to create a small business accessibility program; and $800,000 to expand the community accessibility program to help Nova Scotia be more accessible.
In terms of housing, $38 million in funding is being invested in partnership with the federal government. This funding is going to go towards creating new affordable housing units, offering more in rent supplements, and investing in home repair and adaptation programs to help low-income home earners.
Housing Nova Scotia continues to invest in the capital replacement needs of our public housing stock through an accumulated $8 million investment over five budget years ending in 2019-20. We’re also going to continue to deliver on the commitment made in 2014 to invest $42 million out of the deferred federal contribution, to improve the condition of our social housing stock and increase access to affordable housing in the private rental market.
Budget 2017-18 includes $1.3 million in provincial and federal funds for a down payment assistance program to support young Nova Scotian families who want to buy a home. Funding for 440 new rent supplements is now available around the province and will help reduce the current wait-list for affordable housing by a further 10 per cent. Together, Housing Nova Scotia and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation are committing $18.08 million over two years under the social infrastructure fund for these new rent supplements.
Just so the honourable members of the House know, there were some improvements we made prior to this budget year. We have also made some other improvements in the ESIA program, including enhanced post-secondary programs, like Career Seek, Educate to Work for dependants, to help clients with the cost of school, both university and community college. We have an enhanced workplace support program to better help Nova Scotians who have disabilities. We have increased the personal allowance. We doubled the allowable asset levels, and that’s in income assistance as well. We made administrative improvements, including reduced reporting requirements, improved access to workplace supports, and increased flexibility of payment options for clients.
Earlier this year, we made some improvements to strengthen the foster care program to better serve children and youth in care. I must say, Mr. Chairman, that when we announced those particular improvements, we had a lot of kudos from foster parents because we worked with the Federation of Foster Families to launch a mentoring program for new foster parents and an on-call peer support program for foster parents requiring advice.
You may remember that I mentioned that the number of foster parents that we had in the province was going down. Some of them are getting older, and they’re simply not able to do that work anymore. We worked with them to help increase the number of foster parents. Our greatest ambassadors for this particular program are, in fact, the foster parents themselves. They’re the ones who are telling people they know who they think would make good foster parents. They’re the ones who are referring those folks to us.
We increased the respite rate to $56 per day to give foster parents a chance to get much-needed rest or to attend to their own family, medical, or personal needs. We automated payments for baby supplies and non-prescription items. We expanded after-hours supports because children don’t always come into care on a 9-to-5 schedule. Sometimes it’s on weekends, sometimes it’s in the middle of the night, so we have to be available when that happens. We know that sometimes a foster parent may simply need an ear. They may need to talk to somebody after-hours too, so those are available as well.
In the Disability Support Program, government has invested to improve social inclusion and quality of life for DSP participants by transitioning them from larger facilities to greater independence in the community. We placed a moratorium on the permanent participant placements in large facilities, effective July 1, 2016. When clients are placed in these facilities now, they have to have a transition plan in place in the community within six months, and the client must move out of that facility within three years. We also provided $0.5 million to help more disabled Nova Scotians gain employment experience, with over 200 participants receiving some level of support thus far.
In housing, over the last few years, we have created more than 766 rent supplement subsidies. That has reduced the wait-list by 20 per cent.
This is a big thing, Mr. Chairman, and I understand if the Opposition doesn’t want to give us credit for that. (Interruption)
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Argyle-Barrington.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: There was an agreement amongst the House Leaders that we would be finishing up with DCS some time this evening, and we would be moving on to Justice as early as possible. Yet I have a minister filibustering some questioning from the NDP, so I’m just wondering if we could maybe move on to this.
I know there is an agreement amongst us that we would try to do this, but it doesn’t seem to be working in our favour. I know it’s not really a point of order, but just a reminder to those in the House.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member is quite correct, it is not a point of order, and I suggest if there is further discussion amongst House Leaders, you indeed have it.
The honourable Minister of Community Services has the floor.
MS. REGAN: I might have to start over again because I lost my place. (Laughter) In housing, over the last few years we’ve created more than 766 rent supplement subsidies, reducing the wait-list by 10 per cent. We’ve increased funding for the construction, repair, and adaptation of affordable housing for seniors. We’ve created 226 new affordable rental units for low-income Nova Scotians. We’ve supported Habitat for Humanity to build 15 homes. (Interruptions)
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I would ask if there are further discussions to be had that perhaps - in an effort to hear the honourable minister speaking, which I would like to do and I’m sure others would as well - that they perhaps take the conversation outside the Chamber for a few minutes.
The honourable Minister of Community Services has the floor.
MS. REGAN: We supported Habitat for Humanity to build 15 homes for modest-income families. We’ve invested millions in repairs for public housing. We invested in rent supplement units for emergency shelter providers so that we can help people struggling with homelessness. We provided assistance for health and safety repairs or adaptations for more than 6,000 homes. We completed three neighborhood improvement projects and launched another. These help low-income homeowners and some landlords improve the exteriors of their homes, creating healthier and more vibrant communities.
We do watch outcomes, and I do want to let folks know that. With our wage incentive, if we just have a 1 per cent change in the amount of wages earned by ESIA clients, that would cost the department an additional $1 million in income assistance payments, but clients would get to keep over $4 million in new wages, increasing their adequacy at a minimal cost to government. If there were a 3 per cent change in the amount of wages earned by our ESIA clients, that would translate into an additional $9 million in income and it would save government $1 million annually in income assistance payments. A 5 per cent change would increase the amount of wages earned by ESIA clients by $13.6 million in income, and it would save the government $2.6 million in income assistance payments annually.
If we look at our client measures right now, we are seeing clients with new earned income. It’s happening already - 15.6 per cent of cases are of clients who have new earned income right now. We want to make sure that the folks who are with us on ESIA have the opportunity to transition into a good job.
Previously, the honourable member who was questioning me wanted to know why we hadn’t made certain investments. I have to say that we felt it was important not to pass on more debt to our children. I understand if that’s not a concern for the honourable member, but it’s a concern for a lot of people. It’s a concern for me. It’s a concern for a number of the members in this House.
It’s also a concern, I would note, for Thomas Mulcair. If I look here at this article from the Globe and Mail from just a couple of weeks ago, Friday, September 29th, it says: “Mr. Mulcair makes no apologies for campaigning to balance budgets. ‘I am never going to back down from my position that it’s not responsible for future generations to buy votes with your grandchildren’s money. And by the way, it’s actually a position that the NDP adopted in Halifax in 2008, that our Party will run on platforms of balanced budgets,’ Mr. Mulcair said. ‘It’s not something I pulled out of thin air in 2015. Jack Layton ran on balanced budgets, I ran on balanced budgets.’” I’ll table that particular article.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I would ask that when the honourable minister is finished, if she is, in fact, for the time being, that she table all of the portions of the documents that she read from please, when time permits.
The honourable Leader of the New Democratic Party.
MR. BURRILL: Mr. Chairman, I would say a couple of things in response to this extended discourse. One is, I want the record to show my view that when a Party in our position asks plain and direct questions about the financial suffering of the people of the province and the response is to, in effect, read the phone book into the record so as to use up time that more such questioning would not need to be engaged, it is, in my judgment, deeply disrespectful of the people who have sent us here to hold the government to account on their behalf. That’s one.
Two, I want to not let stand the suggestion that debt is not a concern to me. It is, in fact, the very indebtedness of the people who we are speaking about. We know that the most recent figures on personal bankruptcy in Nova Scotia have been very alarming. We know there are increasing numbers of people who are having to take on credit card debt in order to just be able to buy their groceries. The indebtedness of people is a very major concern and it’s on that basis that I’m pursuing the line of questioning that I’m pursuing and it’s relative to that.
I want to go back to the social assistance and ask about the component of social assistance that’s made up of the shelter allowance. The background with which I want to ask about this is that for some time before I came to this present work, my employment was as a minister serving a congregation in downtown Sydney. There, like in many churches, the church ran a modest food gift card program, so there was lots of opportunity for me there to talk to people about their incomes, the financial challenges they were facing and to ask them, really, about the real makeup of the problem for them. There’s one thing that people said more than they said anything else in those conversations. It would be about their rent. The sentence would go something like this, people would say, how am I supposed to manage when my cheque is, let’s say $780, $820, $850, something in that area and my rent is, let’s say, in the area of something like $650, $670, $725 - how am I supposed to be able to make it? Then we would have a conversation about how social assistance is set up and about the business of the shelter allowance.
It is the case that the shelter allowance has not been increased in the budget that is before us at the moment. It’s also the case that the shelter allowance has not been increased in the last four years. I would like to ask the minister why, in fact, that is.
MS. REGAN: To the member’s first point, I think it is disrespectful when I run through a list of all the things that we’re doing to alleviate poverty, to suggest that that’s the telephone book. It’s not the telephone book, Mr. Chairman, it’s a list of improvements that are being made to make a big difference in the lives of Nova Scotians. The honourable member may want to characterize it that way, that it’s a telephone book, it’s not a telephone book. These are thoughtful investments that are necessary and should have been made before now but they weren’t.
In terms of the shelter allowance, in the past when we raised it, the problem is that landlords would then raise rents. That’s why we’re looking at the standard household rate which we believe will make a difference there. That’s also why we began using rent supplements to assist with that.
MR. BURRILL: I’d like to thank the minister for the series of answers and to pass our part of this interchange back to the member for Dartmouth North.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth North.
MS. SUSAN LEBLANC: I just wanted to ask one last question before I finish up with a larger thing, but it will be fast. Going back to Question Period today when we talked about the clawbacks on the maintenance enforcement, the minister in her answer referred to the fact that the department was investigating or looking into the idea of cancelling that clawback or getting rid of it. Then the Premier talked about maintenance enforcement as an important issue, obviously, but didn’t really address the question.
I just want to clarify, what are you talking about when it comes to cancelling the clawback or ending the clawback? If you do end that clawback, will you end it so that it’s retroactive?
MS. REGAN: This is just one of many moving parts that we’re looking at at this point. I can’t say what we’re going to do or what we’re not going to do at this point. It is something that we’re discussing because we are trying to look at the many causes of poverty. There are many causes, we won’t be able to deal with them all, I don’t think, but we are going to tackle as many as we can. As soon as I have something to share with the House, I will be most happy to.
MS. LEBLANC: I just wanted to talk for a minute about the analogy that the minister made yesterday about transformation being like the Macdonald bridge re-decking. I live really close to the Macdonald bridge, like practically underneath it. I have to say that in the last couple of years, a privileged position here that I even have a car, but it has been a painful two years having to go around to the MacKay bridge every time that bridge is closed. It has been painful; it has been hard. Again, from a privileged position I’m saying this.
While I appreciate this analogy, I am an artist and I like a good poetic analogy, but while I appreciate the idea that this project is somewhat like that, only you can’t close it nights and weekends, and I appreciate the work that is being done on the Macdonald bridge so that it doesn’t fall down, I wanted to further your analogy and just make a comment that for the driver who goes over the bridge, except for the fact that it might not fall down, it doesn’t feel any different. Driving over that bridge, it’s exactly the same as it was two years ago, except it is newly-paved.
What I’m trying to get at here is that I appreciate the work being done on this transformation. I do appreciate it and I’m excited by many, many things, and many parts of it. I’m excited about the sort of possibility or looking at making life easier for clients on ESIA. Even though I do - I’ll flag it again, that I think putting services online is a bit - although you have clarified that most people have asked for that - I think that’s a good idea. I am an online person, and I think that there’s lots of stuff that seems hopeful about it.
The thing that I can’t get my head around with transformation is - and with all due respect - the minister comes back to it as an answer for many, many questions. Even before my honourable Leader here - he had asked a question, and at the very end, with the time running out, the minister said, “and that’s why we have transformation.”
Again, with all due respect, I have heard that so many times, and yet I sat there last night after I got home from the House and thought about the 2 per cent and 5 per cent adequacy increases - I forget the exact wording of that. I crunched some loose numbers, and it’s not a big difference.
In the system delivery, I appreciate how much easier it could make people’s lives. But ultimately, the money being committed to people is not enough. I appreciate an investigation into poverty, and I appreciate a to-do list. I appreciate all of those things, but at the end of the day, if there’s not more money invested, none of those things can work properly. In a province where government boasts a surplus of - what was it?
AN HON. MEMBER: $21 million.
MS. LEBLANC: A surplus of $21 million. For that money not to be reinvested into the most vulnerable areas of our province seems unconscionable to me. I want to be on the record saying that.
If we address the issues of poverty, our province will be healthier, happier, and more productive. With that, Mr. Chairman, I will end my time. Thank you for this excellent period of questions and answers.
MR. CHAIRMAN: If there are no other questions, I will now recognize the honourable Minister of Community Services to offer some closing comments.
MS. REGAN: Thank you very much. I would note that a $21 million surplus is not a huge surplus. You can have a flood in Sydney. You can have a drought somewhere. It can be gone in a moment. Having $21 million is not a huge contingency.
The honourable member and I do agree on a number of things. We do agree that social assistance rates and housing allowances need to increase. That’s why we’re doing transformation.
Sorry, I had to do that one more time.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E4 stand?
Resolution E4 stands.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, would you please call the Estimates of the Department of Justice.
Resolution E13 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $340,711,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Justice, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We will take a short recess as we prepare.
[8:44 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[8:48 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We’ll now call the Committee of the Whole on Supply back to order.
The honourable Minister of Justice.
HON. MARK FUREY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I beg for the patience of the House for the remainder of the evening and I’ll try to lighten the atmosphere. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity this evening. It’s always a pleasure to rise in this building to speak to Nova Scotians. It’s a privilege for me to be representing the Department of Justice for estimates for the 2017-18 budget year. This is my first debate as Attorney General and Minister of Justice. I look forward to speaking about the important work our department and our justice partners do every day to keep Nova Scotians safe and secure as well as what we are doing to keep the justice system running smoothly and effectively.
Before we get under way, I’d like to introduce to the committee, Deputy Minister Karen Hudson to my left and Lisa MacKinnon, the department’s Director of Finance, to my right. They will be my backbone, left and right hand for the duration of our discussions. I think most of the staff are gone from the Department of Justice who were here for the evening but they will return tomorrow to provide that continued support.
I would like to recognize Bob Purcell. Bob is one of our directors in the Department of Justice, has expended a considerable amount of time leading the discussion around the cannabis file. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge and recognize the communications team who, on a regular basis, keep my feet out of my mouth and on the ground. Some say not always.
As Attorney General, I have also had the responsibility for the Public Prosecution Service. Martin Herschorn, the director, was here earlier this evening, and he will return tomorrow as well.
As some of you know, there are also a number of independent agencies and commissions that report through to the Minister of Justice: the Human Rights Commission, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Review Office, the Office of the Police Complaints Commission, and most recently, the province’s new Accessibility Directorate. The others include the Public Trustee, the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner’s Office, the Serious Incident Response Team, and the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal.
As you can all appreciate, Justice has a significant mandate. Our job is to keep people safe and to make sure that the courts run efficiently. We also have the responsibility to protect offenders and accused people in our custody. We must ensure that we are keeping their welfare a priority while we do what we can to successfully reintegrate them back into society. Our Public Safety Division has responsibility for public safety initiatives across the province, including oversight and advice to police. We also have responsibility for private security services and crime prevention. We also have a highly-regarded Legal Services Division. In fact, they are the government’s law practice.
Our duties to the citizens of Nova Scotia are broad, Mr. Chairman. It is the work of our team. They take pride in anything they do, and they do it well every day, in spite of the many challenges that they face in their job.
Another key part of what we do is to ensure that we are responsive to the needs of all Nova Scotians. Providing access to justice for communities that have been marginalized or populations that are vulnerable, is one of my highest priorities as Minister of Justice and of our team. We remain focused on improving access and removing barriers.
I co-chair the Access to Justice committee with Chief Justice Michael MacDonald. Improving access is the lens we use for every program under our watch. Our goal is to make Nova Scotia’s family, civil, and criminal court systems more efficient, less costly, accessible, and easier to navigate. We not only want victims and survivors to have easy access, we also want them to feel that justice has truly been served, which is what we are achieving through our recent expansion of the restorative justice program. We want every Nova Scotian who comes into contact with the justice system to have equal and accessible justice. While we have made great strides, we know there is more work to do.
Our work is constantly evolving, and we do our best to respond and adapt to the change. Society and technology, as we know, can shift in sometimes dramatic fashion, which requires us to adjust quickly to address new realities. The emergence of transgender rights and the increase in cyber crime and cyberbullying are a couple of clear examples.
One of the most significant areas of change, Mr. Chairman, coming to Nova Scotia, and one that has a significant impact on the justice system is Ottawa’s decision to legalize cannabis. Today as we sit here, the possession of and sale of non-medical cannabis is a criminal offence, but by this time next year, it will be legal. This represents major change and a lot of work ahead for our country and our province. It will have impacts on policing, health care, business, and the economy. We are working on a plan. We are listening to Nova Scotians, and we will be ready for July 2018. I’ll talk more about cannabis and the path ahead later in my remarks.
I would like to take a moment to highlight some of our budget components, but first I might just take a few minutes to touch on these. Our budget is focused on ensuring that we can respond to our mandate. The Justice Department budget is $340.7 million and will see an increase by $10.3 million or 3 per cent over last year. We are making key investments in Nova Scotia Legal Aid with an additional $1.1 million. There is $320,000 for the new domestic violence court in Halifax and $286,000 for the Wellness and Gladue court in Wagmatcook First Nation. We also had significant increases for the RCMP for salary and operating costs to the tune of $3.7 million and a funding increase of $1.9 million for Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility to help cover their casual relief and overtime pressures.
Some of the other important investments include $900,000 in funding for the Accessibility Directorate, $837,000 for implementation of shared services, occupational health and safety review recommendations, $440,000 for the Maintenance Enforcement Program enhancement and staffing, and $238,000 to support the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. In addition, we have secured an additional $500,000 from the federal government for funding to increase support for victims of crime.
I think last year at estimates, a member of the Opposition mentioned that the Department of Justice is sometimes the dumping ground for society’s problems. I would suggest it doesn’t have to be that way. Over the next few minutes I want to take time to tell you a more uplifting view of the work that we’re doing in the department. I want to share with you some of the good news, some of the good stories that are happening in Nova Scotia every day. We are a department that is reframing our work and using our resources to create positive change in the justice system and in our communities. Let me quickly give you a few examples of where we are being innovative, leading edge, and focusing on improvement.
We continue to lead the country in restorative justice. We expanded to adults across the province less than a year ago, and in the past six months more than 600 cases that would have been in the criminal courts were referred through the restorative justice program. Restorative justice has proven to be a good option for victims, offenders, and communities, where offenders take responsibility for their actions and truly understand the harm they have done. This helps victims and their families get closure, and that helps in the healing process. An added benefit is it also helps to take pressure off the courts.
We continue to take a leadership role in cyberbullying. We introduced cyber protection legislation last week, and presently we are the only province in the country to have cyberbullying legislation. The rest of the country is watching closely.
A few weeks ago, we became only the third province to proclaim legislation that commits ourselves to a more accessible province where all persons can participate fully in society. Building a barrier-free Nova Scotia is a major undertaking. Our department is leading this. It is a big transformative project, and it will take the efforts of each of us to make it work.
Making Nova Scotia accessible to every Nova Scotian by 2030 is ambitious, but is doable and optimism is high. We have a new Accessibility Directorate led by Gerry Post. Over the next year we will be staffing it up and working on the first set of accessibility standards.
Proclaiming the Accessibility Act last month started the countdown on some important timelines. Government now has one year to develop our strategy on how to achieve the goal of an accessible Nova Scotia. We are now planning on how to identify, remove, and prevent barriers, and address accessibility issues within government policies and practices.
Another significant step forward for our department is the development of the province’s first Aboriginal justice strategy. It is part of our commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. Indigenous adults represent just 4 per cent of the population in Nova Scotia, yet 11 per cent of people in custody. I know this statistic is troubling to everyone in this Legislature, and the solution requires a societal response.
We recognize this statistic is unacceptable. Our justice system must be more responsive and sensitive to indigenous cultures. Addressing indigenous justice issues is a priority for me personally, but also to the government.
Our Aboriginal justice strategy is being developed with the help of stakeholders and it will focus on three main areas: the hiring and recruitment of more indigenous employees - a couple of examples include a full class of indigenous correctional officers later this Fall; targeted recruitment of front-line staff and managers; and a scholarship with the Nova Scotia Community College for indigenous and African Nova Scotian students.
We are also making sure that all Department of Justice employees have cultural competence training. For example, we will have provided cultural training to all of our almost 300 correctional officers in the L’nu-way by next Spring. For those who may not know, L’nu-way provides historical information and experience from an Indigenous perspective. Indigenous staff are shaping the development and delivery of that program. This is being expanded to sheriff services, courts, and the Public Prosecution Service as well.
The third focus is on programming that is responsive to the cultural needs of clients and employees. For example, an Aboriginal healing centre is a key part of the design phase for the new Cape Breton jail. Smudges and sweat lodges are available in our correctional facilities, expanded interpretative training for Mi’kmaw and other languages in our courts,
and the Red Road Sharing Circle, provided at the Nova Scotia Youth Facility, are just a few examples. The strategy, while still being developed, will encompass about 50 initiatives. Some, as I mentioned earlier, are under way and others are new, but the goal is quite simple: to reduce the overrepresentation of indigenous people in the justice system and enhance support for those who are there.
One of the most exciting initiatives will be the opening of the new Wellness and Gladue court in the Wagmatcook First Nation community, which will also provide provincial court services for the broader community. This is something exciting and outside the box of the traditional justice system which, frankly, has not always served Mi’kmaq people well. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge and recognize the work of the judiciary’s unprecedented engagement in resolving community issues with community partners.
It will be the first of its kind in Nova Scotia and, as we understand, perhaps the first of its kind in the country when it opens in the next few months. This court will be symbolic of what we can achieve when we collaborate and listen to one another in a genuine way. It is an important step forward in improving access to justice and provides a response that is culturally respectful of the communities it serves.
I will now take a few moments to touch on a couple of additional priorities that have been outlined in my mandate letter and in our department’s business plan, and what steps my office and our team will take over the next few years to deliver on these priorities.
We will continue to make improvements to the Maintenance Enforcement Program. We will move forward with steps to strengthen enforcement of court-ordered spousal and child-support payments. Last year, almost $59 million in payments were collected and sent out to families. Over the past two years, enforcement actions which include garnishment, collection calls, licence denials, and motor vehicle suspensions increased by 82 per cent.
Later this Fall, we will be proclaiming sections of the new Maintenance Enforcement Act that will allow the program to seize assets of individuals who are in persistent arrears and preventing renewal of driver’s licences and vehicle permits, without notice.
About 15,000 children and youth are served by this program. The economic stability of their families depends on the work of the program, and I saw this first-hand over 32 years in policing. We will continue to make improvements over the course of our mandate.
The welfare family is central to another departmental priority this year. We have heard clearly from women and support groups that we need to provide better supports for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, in the criminal justice system. Expanding the domestic violence court program to Halifax, and making the domestic violence court in Sydney permanent is a welcome expansion of our speciality courts, which also include a court-monitoring drug treatment program and a mental health court.
We are working closely with our partners in the judiciary on this expansion with our target of opening the metro Domestic Violence Court Program at Spring Garden Road by the end of this calendar year or early in the new year. Soon we will announce free independent legal advice to victims of sexual assault, which will provide victims and survivors with a voice.
The Public Prosecution Service is hiring two sexual assault special Crown Prosecutors, who will mentor and train other Crowns as well as handle court cases. We are also ensuring all our municipal police services have the resources they need to adequately investigate sexual assault cases. In September, we commence audits of local police services and their ability to investigate sexual assaults, and we will conclude this audit process in January.
I can’t stress enough that everything we do in the Department of Justice relies on partnerships. So much of our work succeeds because of our collaboration with the judiciary, police agencies, and many others in the justice system. We work closely and owe much to the solid and positive relationships that we have with our municipal and provincial policing services, the RCMP, the Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association, the Nova Scotia Judiciary, the Public Prosecution Service, Nova Scotia Legal Aid, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, community-led organizations such as restorative justice agencies, and the list goes on and on.
Although we work with each of these organizations almost daily, we also work together under the umbrella of the Criminal Justice Transformation Group. Together, we address a wide range of issues and concerns to find solutions to improve and strengthen the system. A major focus right now is targeting court delays in the criminal justice system. Unreasonable delays in the courts is an issue across Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada with the Jordan decision has made it clear, provinces have a responsibility. A few examples of the steps under way include the increasing use of video courts, a real-time electronic ticker to better track case times, and an early-resolution project - to name just a few.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the big changes ahead for all of us is the legalization of cannabis, and I wish to speak for a few minutes to elaborate on that topic. As you saw last Friday, we launched our consultation and we are looking forward to hearing from Nova Scotians on topics such as age, distribution, and public consumption. Cannabis legislation represents a significant policy shift for the country and for Nova Scotia. It is complex and it will have a significant impact on our province. Nova Scotia has established an interdepartmental working group to organize the government’s position and determine the impacts of federal legislation, and in past discussions, I want to share with my colleagues in this House, I believe now over 40 employees across government are working on that file to ensure that we are ready for July 2018.
Work is ongoing to develop a distribution model, ensuring health and safety protections as well as identifying taxation, road safety, and legislative next steps. Any regulatory framework will prioritize health and safety of Nova Scotians, especially our children and our youth. It is also important that we continue to collaborate with our Atlantic colleagues and colleagues across the country to establish a safe regime where the rules are as consistent as possible between jurisdictions. I’ve met directly with my colleagues in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and have spoken with my colleague in Newfoundland and Labrador, and we’re all on the same page in agreement.
As lead minister of this file, I am participating on the Council of the Federation, Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Cannabis Legalization, which is identifying common considerations and best practices to legalize and regulate cannabis. The working group is to identify common considerations and best practices to legalize and regulate cannabis.
There are a number of issues that we would like to see resolved with the federal government including road safety and enforcement mechanisms, preparation and training for a distribution network, taxation arrangements and cost coverage, public education campaigns, supply and demand, and relationships to black markets. In keeping with the health and safety thing, I think it’s important to note that Justice has been a partner with the Department of Health and Wellness on the opioid framework released this past summer. I know that the misuse of prescription drugs and the trafficking of illegal opioids is a serious issue facing our communities. The strategy focuses on understanding the issue: prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and enforcement.
As a department, we were pleased to be able to provide the initial supply of naloxone to police and we know several lives have been saved because of naloxone being administered by police officers and other first responders. We have also made naloxone available in our correctional facilities and trained our staff on its use. We are also sending kits home with offenders who are at risk. Naloxone has also been available to our sheriffs, and before I conclude my comments, I’d like to say just a few words on crime prevention and public safety.
Everyone in this room knows that reducing and preventing crime is a responsibility that we all share. It’s not up to police, alone. It’s not up to government. Every citizen has a responsibility to take actions that make our communities and our neighbours safe and secure.
Over the next few minutes I’d like to touch on a few more initiatives that I know are of particular interest to those in this room and to all Nova Scotians. The additional officer program review is under way and we have received a draft review document. This is the first review since the program was initiated in 2007. It has helped keep Nova Scotians safe for 10 years and we want the program to continue. We need it to be as efficient as possible and as effective as possible.
Much has changed, Mr. Chairman, in our communities in policing over the past decade so it’s only prudent to review the program and to ensure that it is doing the job we want it to do. This year the Department of Justice is contributing approximately $16 million in funding 132 additional officer positions. Our goal is to work with police services and the municipalities to sustain the additional officer program, to find efficiencies while still maintaining the level of safety and security that Nova Scotians require. My hope is that we will have a final draft to share soon.
Mr. Chairman, I’ll just say a few words about the Public Prosecution Service. The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service represents the Crown in criminal proceedings. It was established in 1990 under the Public Prosecution Act as the first independent prosecution service in Canada. It employs 95 Crown Attorneys and has a total staff of 167 individuals in 18 offices across the province. Our Crowns handle about 40,000 Criminal Code charges every year. In addition to prosecuting all Criminal Code offences in Nova Scotia, the Public Prosecution Service is responsible for prosecuting some 10,000 violations of provincial Statutes annually. The Public Prosecution Service also appeals decisions made by the courts in indictable proceedings where the Crown believes the court has made an error in law.
Continuing education is a priority for this organization. It is important that the Crown Attorneys and support staff are able to enhance their expertise on an ongoing basis. At the end of the day this results in better quality prosecution services.
I would also like to speak for a moment about the challenges facing the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service. Major cases are complex and often high profile and require a significant amount of time, skill, and dedication from more than one Crown Attorney. Public safety and the public perception of the justice system are influenced by the outcomes of these cases. The Public Prosecution Service makes it a practice to assign at least two Crown Attorneys to each murder case, at least one being a senior Crown Attorney. This is essential to professionally responding to the demands of these difficult cases.
Many major or specialized prosecutions are handled by members of the service’s Special Prosecutions Section. Such prosecutions include complex fraud cases, historical sexual assaults, cyber crime cases, child pornography cases, provincial regulatory offences, and Aboriginal law cases.
Budget 2017-18 provides for an increase in the Public Prosecution Service’s complement of five positions: three permanent and two one-year term positions. This is an increase of $765,000 over last year, for a total budget of $23.7 million.
Due to the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision - I mentioned it earlier, the Jordan decision - guidelines compelling us to conclude cases in the Provincial Court within 18 months and in the Supreme Court within 30 months. The two term positions will be dedicated to easing the heavy dockets in the Halifax region.
Two of the permanent positions are specialist positions, Mr. Chairman. The Public Prosecution Service is creating an enhanced prosecution model when it comes to sexual assault cases. The entire Public Prosecution Service will benefit from the two specialist positions based in head office. These two Crown Attorneys will provide support, training, mentoring, and specialized guidance to all Crown Attorneys who are prosecuting these challenging cases. The third permanent position will be dedicated to the development and operation of the domestic violence court in HRM.
The Public Prosecution Service is a member of the Criminal Justice Transformation Group, a committee representing justice partners working together to maximize efficiencies within the justice system. The Public Prosecution Service continues to spearhead the province-wide e-disclosure initiative to facilitate the Crown’s ability to receive uniform electronic disclosures from police. Much progress has been made over the last few years and I’m pleased to say that a lot of electronic file transfer should be in place in the next 18 months.
SCOPE, a comprehensive case management system developed by Ontario, was acquired by the Public Prosecution Service in the last year for testing, to determine its compatibility with current computer programs within the justice system. If successful, this will achieve long-needed case management for the Public Prosecution Service. The Phase I assessment is set to begin soon.
I very much appreciate the efforts of Nova Scotia’s Public Prosecution Service and I’m confident they are well-positioned to meet future challenges, Mr. Chairman, as well as opportunities in the year ahead.
Mr. Chairman, before I conclude my remarks, I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank the over 1,600 employees for their commitment to the people of this province. Many of them are on the front line dealing with challenges and situations that are difficult to handle, on a daily basis.
Nova Scotians can be extremely proud, Mr. Chairman, of the work that the Justice team does on their behalf. They accomplish great things every day. They quietly go about their work, keeping our province safe and secure.
Mr. Chairman, I look forward to the opportunity to respond to the questions of my colleagues. I’ll do my best to answer those questions here in the House. If we are unable to provide immediate answers here, we will work diligently to provide those answers to my colleagues, following our discussions. Thank you and I look forward to continued dialogue with my colleagues.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MS. KARLA MACFARLANE: Mr. Chairman, I want to thank the minister for his remarks and his colleagues for sticking around. We weren’t sure if we were going to begin this evening or not, so we appreciate your hanging in with us.
In your opening remarks, you indicated that you spoke to colleagues in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, as well as, I believe, a telephone conversation with a colleague in Newfoundland and Labrador, and that you were on the same page with regard to the legalization of marijuana. I’m wondering if perhaps you can provide further details of what you mean that you are on the same page.
MR. FUREY: Yes, certainly. The discussions I’ve had with my colleagues have been specific to the regional approach and the importance of consistency, particularly with age. Although there are differing opinions and views on an appropriate age, it’s important, we believe, that there is a regional approach to age. The last thing we would want to create is a cross-border shopping issue with legalized cannabis.
We’ve talked about a regional model, we’ve talked about the value of regional consistencies and those discussions have really centred around what we believe is a consistent age for our ability to enforce and administer the legalization of cannabis.
MS. MACFARLANE: I appreciate and understand the regional approach. I think it’s very important to network and connect with our colleagues. It doesn’t always mean that we have to necessarily take the same approach, though. I do know that the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Nova Scotia is very concerned about rolling out this plan for 2018. As well, Chief Medical Officers across Canada have spoken loud and clear about this with regard to - we all know the frontal lobe doesn’t completely develop until we are 25. However, smoking a lot of marijuana between the ages of 15 and 21 is when you are most affected and it can do cell damage, so the Chief Medical Officers across Canada have recommended that the age should be 21.
I’m wondering if perhaps there were any discussions about taking into consideration their recommendations when speaking to your colleagues with regard to a regional approach with age.
MR. FUREY: All of my colleagues recognize and acknowledge the differing opinions and views on age. The Canadian Medical Association has identified 25 for the reasons that you’ve mentioned. Dr. Strang has spoken publicly, most recently representing his national colleagues and spoken to the age of 21, but all of us in our discussions, my colleagues around Atlantic Canada, my colleagues across the country, and those subject- matter experts in providing those opinions and views also recognize that one of the objectives in legalizing cannabis is to mitigate the presence and influence of organized crime. In addressing an age, we have to find a balance where consumers would consider a legalized, regulated market versus the existing and ongoing criminal market, and it is through those efforts that many have landed on a specific age and that consideration has been given to an age other than that recommended and identified by the Canadian Medical Association and that age of 21 that Dr. Strang has spoken to.
I know in Alberta with their recent announcement, I believe they announced the age of 18 which is consistent with the federal government legislation, although the federal government has given provinces latitude to adjust that age. The other element here and I think Alberta applied it, was the age of majority or legal age for consumption of alcohol in that province is 18, so they’ve aligned for that purpose but we anticipate that we will see some variance among ages across the country. We believe, in the Atlantic region, that consistencies relative to age will serve individual provinces well in their ability to manage and administer the retail sale of legal cannabis.
MS. MACFARLANE: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister for that reasonable answer. Earlier, the minister mentioned that there are approximately 40 employees working on distribution, health safety tax, road safety, preparation, and training. I’m wondering if the minister could please give me a breakdown of those 40 employees. Are we speaking of 40 employees within the Department of Justice, or are they extended out into Health, because it is a Health issue as well? I’m wondering if you can just give me a breakdown of what exactly those 40 employees are doing.
MR. FUREY: Certainly, that nucleus has played varying roles on different committees towards the objective that the province be well positioned for July 2018, and those departments include the Department of Justice staff, Department of Health and Wellness, Department of Finance and Treasury Board, Service Nova Scotia, as well as the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs.
It’s a very broad, complex file. It’s taken a considerable amount of resources. It’s taken a considerable amount of time over an extended period of time. A lot of background work, a lot of the understanding of other provinces and U.S. states that have legalized this, a lot of research. That work has informed the work that our staff have done in Nova Scotia and in the work that they continue to do going forward.
MS. MACFARLANE: I totally agree with the minister. It is very complex and it entails a lot of involvement from all departments to get it right. I’m going to probably be speaking on this one particular subject matter for at least an hour - not this evening, of course. I’m going to start with distribution and I’m wondering if perhaps we can question the minister on, with what has come in so far from the survey, has there been any indication or has it been highlighted in that survey that perhaps there is one particular way that the Department of Justice plans to distribute marijuana?
MR. FUREY: There has been no analysis of the response to the survey at this point. The survey closes October 27th. We anticipate by November 10th we will have some general understanding of that feedback.
MS. MACFARLANE: How was the company, MQO - I believe is the company - chosen to actually develop the survey?
MR. FUREY: My understanding is that MQO is one service provider that is on a standing offer with the provincial government for purposes of doing these types of online surveys.
MS. MACFARLANE: Just to clarify, we didn’t tender it out so that other companies could actually bid on it?
MR. FUREY: The standing offer process is basically pre-qualification of those entities to provide government services. We would go to a list of existing service providers and be able to draw from that list without going out into an RFP process.
MS. MACFARLANE: I’m wondering if the minister can reaffirm what the total cost is and if, perhaps, there is a little bit of a breakdown of that total cost.
MR. FUREY: The cost as we have communicated recently is $65,000. There are a few components to the work that they are doing. They are administering the online survey. They will facilitate the stakeholder consultation sessions across the province. There are five sessions for key stakeholders. They will include health, law enforcement, education, youth - one slips my mind. Two will be in HRM, one will be in Cape Breton, and one will be in southwest Nova Scotia.
The second element to that will be the municipal element where we will engage municipalities. There will be five sessions for municipalities. That will be led by the Department of Municipal Affairs. At the end, part of the $65,000, input received through those methods will be summarized and included in a “what we heard” document. Input from the sessions and online survey, focused on those areas that I mentioned earlier, will be synthesized and included in that report, so basically, three elements to the cost of that service.
MS. MACFARLANE: I see my time is limited. But I may be able to get out the question so you can think about it overnight. How involved were you with the wordsmithing of the survey?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time allotted for Committee of the Whole on Supply today has expired.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I move that the committee do now rise and that you report progress and beg leave to sit again.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee adjourned at 9:30 p.m.]