It’s not his birthday, Valentine’s Day, or the holiday season, but this July and August , Minister François Blais, Ministre de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale du Québec, will have a mailbox full of cards.
For each day of the 60 day consultation process on Bill 70, Minister Blais will receive 60 packages containing 404 cards to remind him that it is impossible to live on a welfare benefit of $404 per month.
What is Bill 70?
In November 2016, the National Assembly in Québec passed Bill 70 into law. This piece of legislation, introduced by Labour Minister Sam Hamad, had the stated intention of allowing a better match between training and jobs and to facilitate labour market entry, also known as program Objectif Emploi. The Bill requires people on social assistance to enlist in programs to find a job or get more training.
Incredibly, non-compliance with the measures in this program greatly reduces the social assistance payment from $623 to $404 a month. It would also not allow those on assistance to refuse a “suitable” job if it is offered to them. According to Minister Hamad this program will save the government 50 million dollars.
What Bill 70 Means for Marginalized Persons
Groups like the Coalition Objectif Dignité and the Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté have spoken out about the Bill. As Yann Tremblay-Marcotte of the coalition noted, there may be many reasons individuals are unable to work, for example “[i]t could be psychological problems, if they’re abused when they’re a child, if they just came from a youth centre, if they need more time to organize themselves”.
On July 12 of this month, the Bill is under a consultation period for 60 days. While the Bill is meant to “encourage” people on social assistance to enlist in programs to find a job or get more training, in reality this Bill coerces some of the most vulnerable people in Québec.
What this Bill 70 Means for Canada’s Human Rights Obligations
The new law ignores the complexities of poverty and social exclusion, not to mention Canada’s commitments under international human rights laws like the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
Nor does the law take in consideration the barriers created by public policy or the realities of the current labour market with low-paying jobs at minimum wage that are temporary, contractual or seasonal, that includes evenings, weekends and night shifts. As the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) argues, it is not a way to build a future. Project Genesis argues that it is the labour market and the welfare system itself that makes it impossible for people to have meaningful employment and an adequate standard of living.
What Bill 70 would have meant for me
Here’s an example that happened to me a number of years ago. As a director of a department at a community organisation, I had to leave my work for health reasons for a long period of time. I did not have work insurance and so was relieved to qualify for employment insurance sickness benefits, a program of a maximum of 15 weeks only. After these weeks, I had recuperated somewhat, but not enough to return to work. As a single parent, and having worked in the non-profit sector for many years with a small salary, I was not able to put aside any savings that could help me in a situation that I now found myself in.
My Canada Service agent stated that sickness benefits had reached their maximum and that I would have to apply to my province’s welfare or social assistance program in Québec. Under Bill 70, even though I did not have a disability, I would not be able comply with this new program Objectif Emploi and would only receive $404 a month for social assistance.
Paying the rent for my small apartment would be out of the question; I would have to immediately find someone to sublet at $780 a month. I would cancel amenities for hydro, heating, phone, and assume the cost of any cancellation fees. I would have to pay storage or sell my belongings – items that I struggled so hard to pay for in the first place, many of which were of precious personal value. I wouldn’t know where to start to find a place to live on such an incredibly small amount of income.
What Bill 70 Means for Québec
As the first province to adopt Anti-Poverty and Social Exclusion legislation with Bill 112 in December 2002, it is deeply disappointing that the province has taken such an enormous step away from their past reputation as a government committed to human rights.
While provinces like British Columbia are talking about increasing income rates, Québec is taking a huge step backwards with their social assistance program. Bill 70 will not allow a better match between training and jobs and to facilitate labour market entry, it is a shameful Act to save the government millions of dollars off the backs of the most vulnerable people.
Harriett McLachlan is Interim Deputy Director at Canada Without Poverty.