WHO WILL HAVE A FUTURE IN A POST-PANDEMIC CANADA? The shameful treatment of its poorest seniors, along with other vulnerable groups too long forgotten, needs a national inquiry.

The Compassion Chronicles: An unflinching look at the forgotten in society. They have been neglected for a long time. But the pandemic left no doubt about the consequences when the powerless and at-risk are left without support, compassion or hope. The lesson is that when it comes to the future of the most vulnerable, we need to do a whole lot better at making sure they actually have a future. In this column, our compassion lens sets its sights on how Canada’s lowest income seniors were left struggling for food and housing after the federal government cut them off their guaranteed income supplement.

Nothing has lifted the curtain on the most vulnerable in Canada like the pandemic. First Nations populations, racialized communities, victims of opioid dependence, women subjected to intimate partner abuse, people living with emotional and physical disabilities, low-income seniors, and especially the elderly living in long-term care settings, are among the many disadvantaged who had a very hard time getting the support they needed before the arrival of Covid-19. But the fallout from the virus added so much more to the hardship they faced, and because of that, we now have a high-definition portrait of the lives of the powerless that had not been seen before. The picture is unrelenting in its demand for action to ensure that those who have been neglected for too long are not forgotten again.

I have been calling for a national discussion on that subject for some time. Canada’s Senate has a tradition of holding this kind of investigation into pressing issues of the day. Senator Keith Davey headed a landmark probe into the mass media in 1970 and, before that, Senator David Croll conducted Canada’s first big look into poverty and (needed then and even more now) a guaranteed annual income.

I made the pitch for this kind of inquiry to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology while it was considering Bill C-12, the government’s response to the fiasco it created when it clawed back the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits of tens of thousands of Canadians who had previously received emergency CERB (pandemic relief) payments. Apparently, the federal government had no problem forcing the lowest-income seniors to live on little more than $700 a month. Many have been left homeless. Others have found themselves suddenly hospitalized because of malnutrition. As I have sadly reported elsewhere, some have died or have taken their own lives.

When I reached out to the committee, I knew the cumulative misery the clawback had caused since it took effect last August, based on the dozens of seniors who had contacted my advocacy clinic with their harrowing stories. But I didn’t know it was about to get even worse for the most at-risk among this already vulnerable group.

During her February 25th appearance before the committee, Seniors Minister Kamal Khera promised help was finally on the way for those who had seen their GIS benefits wiped out. She said seniors experiencing dire financial hardship would see a lump-sum repayment of their lost benefits in March. There were no ifs, ands or buts. It was a firm commitment from Canada’s minister for seniors. Others would receive their payment in April. The lack of detail in that announcement sent up a big red flag and prompted me to urge the committee to seek clarification on who would get the earlier payment and what they needed to do to receive it. Regrettably, the senators never asked those questions.

Turns out, getting the March payment was based on a secret, unwritten process. Service Canada, the government agency that administers public pension benefits, has been telling seniors who called to find out when they would receive their payment that they should have applied through their MP’s office prior to February 28th in order to receive it in March. Of course, not being mind-readers, most didn’t know that, and even those in dire financial circumstances were told they were out of luck and had to wait another month.

So what’s an extra month of waiting, some might ask? It’s an eternity to anyone paying 60 percent interest on emergency loans or looking to move out of a shelter or bad housing into something a little better. These folks cannot wait, and a compassionate government would not force more delay on them. Look at this email I got from a desperate senior. It was just one of dozens I have received since this nightmare began for so many last summer.

But what’s really going on with this secret process for “early” GIS repayment is also cause for concern. You won’t find these requirements posted on Minister Khera’s website or social media accounts, or those of my own MP and cabinet minister, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, of whom further requests for clarification went unacknowledged prior to finalizing this column. Ask any advocate and they will tell you that retreating behind a wall of silence has become a common practice when governments have something to hide, especially when it involves the most vulnerable.

Details about the February 28th deadline are nowhere to be found on Service Canada’s site or on the social media platforms of dozens of MPs I visited. In fact, the whole contact-your-MP-by-February 28th route appears to have been strictly by stealth and word of mouth only. Hello, Auditor General?

At every step along this tortuous journey, public officials and legislators who could have prevented these months of gruelling harm to seniors dropped the ball instead. With this latest fiasco, it’s obvious they haven’t learned anything. It’s hard to imagine a better case for why we need a national inquiry that will throw a bright spotlight on the future of Canada’s most vulnerable — to ensure that they actually have a future.

Kathleen Finlay, a long-time advocate for victims of harm and betrayal in the workplace, in healthcare and in the community advises on the delivery of more innovative compassion practices in the post-pandemic era. Email her here.

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Kathleen Finlay is founder of ZeroHarmNow, which advises on the delivery of more innovative compassion practices in the post-pandemic period.

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Kathleen Finlay

Kathleen Finlay

Kathleen Finlay is founder of ZeroHarmNow, which advises on the delivery of more innovative compassion practices in the post-pandemic period.

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