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Putting safety back into the social safety net

Violence against women remains endemic in Canadian society despite law-and-order approaches, making it imperative that we consider and address systemic inequalities that perpetuate domestic violence.

Social Justice by Michelle Mann

Ontario's social assistance policies facilitate violence against women in many ways, including subsistence-level rates, the treatment of fraud, and assumptions of spousal economic dependency.

The erosion of social assistance rates in Ontario and across Canada has made it difficult for women to get out of violent situations. Social assistance rates that are grossly inadequate to address women's needs create a barrier to their ability to leave or avoid abusive relationships.

Simply put, poverty and low payments leave lower-income women with few options for survival. Abuse of women occurs in every economic stratum, but financial disadvantage creates a stubborn barrier to escape.

Enhancement of social assistance rates won't eradicate violence against women, but would give a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable women in Can-adian society.

Readers may recall the 2002 Supreme Court of Canada case, Gosselin v. Quebec, wherein Charter challengers unsuccessfully argued a s. 7 life, liberty, and security of the person right requiring positive state action to remedy poverty. The case was ultimately a loss for poverty activists, but then-justice Louise Arbour's dissent reflected that s. 7 rights are less meaningful when they do not mandate its alleviation.

Life, liberty, and security of the person become even more empty values for a battered woman who cannot leave an abusive relationship due to inadequate economic resources for herself and her children.

While campaigning in the provincial election of 2003, Ontario's current provincial government promised to eliminate the clawback of the national child benefit supplement on social assistance payments ? a promise it has yet to live up to.

As a result, a s. 15 Charter challenge is now pending in Chokomolin, Lance, & Prine v. Canada. The challengers say the deduction of the supplement from social assistance benefits is discriminatory on the basis of their status as social assistance recipients and that it violates the dignity of families on social assistance, perpetuating negative stereotyping.

The impact of the addition of "receipt of social assistance" as a category to s. 15(1) in 2002 by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Falkiner v. Ontario has yet to be seen, though it has been lauded as a significant development in challenging discrimination based on poverty and social exclusion.

Some observers say since poverty tends to lead toward exclusion from Canadian society, and exclusion and equality rights are inextricably interconnected, poverty has become justiciable under s. 15 of the Charter.

Canada's international commitments should also hold some sway in the ss. 7 and 15 debates, given the Supreme Court's confirmation of their interpretive value in Slaight Communications Inc. v. Davidson.

Provincial social assistance policies that assume women's financial dependence upon partners via so-called "spouse in the house" rules also expose women to control and violence.

Under Ontario's revised post-Falkiner regulations, the investigation of spousal status remains premature, kicking in after three months. This policy continues to enforce gendered economic dependency on women and make them vulnerable to abuse.

It remains incumbent upon Ontario's government to reformulate the definition of spouse. Tracking the three-year co-habitation rule in s, 29 of the Family Law Act would lessen the inherent subjectivity that currently exists in the Ontario Works definition and make spousal criteria more accessible to recipients. It would also eliminate what appears to be the ongoing discrimination against welfare recipients, women, and single mothers.

Ultimately, the court's recognition in Falkiner of the interconnectedness of the factors of gender, receipt of social assistance, and single motherhood illustrates an understanding of the systemic nature of discrimination and the barriers and disadvantages faced by women.

Equally, drawing out the connections between gender, receipt of social assistance and women's vulnerability to violence and control, exposes the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of Ontario's social assistance policies.

The provincial government must develop social assistance laws and policy that truly respond to the domestic legal environment, Canada's international commitments, and the realities of women's lives.

Michelle Mann is a Toronto-based lawyer, freelance writer, and consultant. Check out her blog at

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