Human rights commission dismisses diet-allowance complaint — but urges province to take action

Human rights commission dismisses diet-allowance complaint — but urges province to take action

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has dismissed, for the second time, a discrimination complaint from five social assistance recipients about the provincial special diet allowance, which hasn't been increased since 1996.

The allowance helps people who have chronic medical problems and require particular foods.

The commission said in a letter to the recipients' lawyer that the complaint "raises no significant issues of discrimination." At the same time, the commission said it's "evident" the program needs to be reviewed by the province.

Roxanne Barton, Deborah Wright, Bonnie Barrett, Pamela Chandler, Michele Cox and the North End Community Health Centre claimed in its August 2015 complaint that the Department of Community Services had discriminated against them based on disability. 

'Very difficult'

The commission dismissed that complaint in June last year, but a provincial Supreme Court judge referred the case back to the commission in January to be dealt with in "accordance with the principles of fairness and transparency."

Commission chair Eunice Harker said in a letter to Legal Aid lawyer Vince Calderhead that the case was discussed at the commissioners' meeting on Feb. 22 and dismissed without a hearing a second time. 

"These decisions are very difficult for us to make as we recognize persons in receipt of social benefits are on a fixed low income," Harker wrote. "However, our decisions must be made based on factual and legislative reasoning.

"While we do not have the authority to act outside of our Human Rights Act, we do believe it is appropriate for us to comment by urging the Province to complete its review of this social assistance program in a timely manner."

Decision 'disheartening'

Calderhead said in an email the decision was disheartening, "given that special diet allowances are paid to people who are living in desperate poverty and in need of them, that they haven't been increased in value in over 20 years and that some 10,000 people receive these allowances every month in Nova Scotia."

Calderhead pointed to a report released Monday about food security in Nova Scotia by FoodArc, a research centre at Mount Saint Vincent University.

"It shows that income assistance recipients are hundreds of dollars per month short of being able to eat nutritiously," he said. "The fact that special diet allowances haven't been increased in over 20 years — during a period when basic food allowances were increased on 11 occasions — sends a message that the province is not giving equal priority to the food needs of the disabled poor."

Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard has said her department is considering what to do with special diet
allowances as it examines its social assistance programs, but she has made no specific promise of change.

The department says it spends a significant portion of its overall benefits budget for special diets — at about $8.8 million in 2015-16.

About 9,000 Nova Scotians get special diet assistance each month.