Edmonton Journal

19 May 2002, p. A12

Why marry? You'll lose benefits

Giving single women on welfare special treatment ludicrous, illogical

By Lorne Gunter
Edmonton Journal

And you thought the Federal Court of Canada's grant of tax-free status to Treaty 8 natives was ludicrous.

Consider this week's ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal that welfare recipients have a Charter right not to be discriminated against.

Put aside consideration of whether or not receipt of welfare should be a protected category within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To give it such status seems unreasonable. But let's focus on the judges' ruling and the reasoning they used to arrive at it.

There is a parallel between the Treaty 8 case from March and what is known as the "spouse in the house" ruling in Ontario. In both cases, the judges manufactured new rights out of thin air, and did so in the face of all logic.

In the Treaty 8 case, Mr. Justice Douglas Campbell ruled that the natives of northern Alberta, and parts of northern B.C. and Saskatchewan, do not have to pay tax of any kind, on or off reserve. This is their treaty right, Campbell proclaimed.

Of course, he also found that no tax exemption promise had been made to the ancestors of Treaty 8 natives at the time they signed the treaty - 1899. Those ancestors had somehow mistakenly convinced themselves such a pledge had been made. But no matter, Campbell ruled the descendants of Treaty 8's signatories should be tax-free "in order for the honour of the Crown to be maintained."

Don't ask me how the Crown's honour can be impugned for failing to keep a promise it never made. It's obvious I haven't got the intellectual subtlety to be a modern Canadian jurist.

In the Ontario ruling this week, Mr. Justice John Laskin ruled that it violated the "human dignity" of welfare recipients to have their government cheques reduced, or even cut off completely, when a boyfriend with income moves in.

When a woman on welfare marries, her benefits are adjusted according to her new husband's income. If he's working and earning a lot, her payments cease. If he is earning only a little, her assistance is reduced. If they are both on welfare, their new combined payment is lower than the sum of their individual, pre-marriage payments.

Since 1995, Ontario has been treating unmarried, co-habiting welfare recipients in precisely the same way. The moment a recipient begins living with someone, that someone is deemed the equivalent of a spouse. The recipient's cheque is then adjusted downward according to the income of the "spouse in the house."

No, Laskin said. This amounts to discrimination on the basis of welfare status. This cannot be permitted to continue. Welfare status must therefore be read-in to the Charter. Never mind that elected legislators chose not to add it. The self-esteem of welfare women is at risk. It's too important to be left to the democratic process. Something must be done!

So Laskin and his bench-mate, Madam Justice Kathryn Feldman, added welfare status to the categories protected in Section 15 of the Charter - the equality section. This enabled Laskin and Feldman to - and here's the ludicrous, illogical part - force the Ontario government to treat welfare recipients who live together unequally from recipients who marry.

Yes, in a twist of reasoning every bit as gravity-defying as Judge Campbell's Treaty 8 prestidigitation, Laskin and Feldman determined that the only way single women on welfare can be equal is to ensure them special treatment, to treat them more generously than married recipients, to apply different rules only to them.

There's a distinctly anti-male undercurrent in this ruling, too. "Forcing" women on welfare, Laskin added, "to become financially dependent on men ... strikes at the core of their human dignity." Ah, yes, and living off the avails of taxpayers is so self-affirming. Instead of "spouse in the house," the Ontario Court of Appeal could have called this ruling the "welfare good, men bad" decision.

The judges also argued that if they upheld the spouse-in-the-house rule, they would be discouraging welfare recipients from starting relationships. But it appears from their ruling never even to have occurred to them that creating a financial incentive for living together would have a discouraging effect on marriage among welfare recipients.

Oh, yeah, but if a woman marries, she has to accept the indignity of bonding with a man.

The Globe and Mail thought this ruling was just spiffy, though. It editorialized that people might live together for "convenience, desire, friendship, a roof and running water," and "even the existence of a sexual relationship does not prove they are in effect married."

Perhaps. But by the same token, people living together should never have a court-given right to extract a subsidy from taxpayers for the satisfaction of their "desires."

Lorne Gunter
Columnist, The Edmonton Journal
Editorial Board Member, The National Post
Tele: (780) 916-0719
Fax: (780) 481-4735
Email: lgunter@shaw.ca

© Copyright 2002 Edmonton Journal