A recent decision from the Supreme Court of Canada will have serious consequences for people receiving benefits from the Ontario Disability Support Program and Ontario Works. The decision states that same sex couples are to be treated the same as couples of the opposite sex.
In 1995, people receiving Social Assistance were affected by two major changes. The first one was a 21% cut to the benefits and the other was the change to the definition of the term “spouse”.
When the government announced the 21% cut to the Social Assistance benefits, it was stated that people who could not afford to survive on the new benefits should think about sharing accommodations. In fact, people were forced into such living arrangements given the cost of housing in Ottawa-Carleton. At the same time, changes to the definition of the term “spouse” happened. If you were living with a person of the opposite sex, and had financial interdependence and familial and social links, you could be found to be living in a spousal relationship.
As a result of these changes, a vast majority of people opted to share accommodation, but with people of the same sex to avoid any allegations of spousal relationship.
With the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, same sex couples are viewed the same as couples of the opposite sex. This means that for Social assistance recipients sharing accommodations with someone of the same sex, a review of their situation will likely occur. People will have to complete a cohabitation questionnaire, which is a questionnaire drafted by the Ministry of Community and Social Services which asks questions about the relationship. For example, a determination of spousal relationship can include questions related to watching television together, watching each other's kids, celebrating birthdays together, etc. These “simple” activities can lead to a determination that a person is in a spousal relationship. Many friends do these activities together. However, they are not spouses. The law says that questions relating to sexual factors cannot be asked. Therefore, the Ministry relies on the questions mentioned above to determine whether they are living as spouses. There is a very fine line between friendship and being spouses.
Because many recipients of Social Assistance were forced into shared accommodations, we foresee that many of these people will be cut-off assistance on the basis that they are in a spousal relationship. However, there was no choice to begin with given the reduction in benefits.
Should you be affected by this change, contact your nearest community legal clinic for advice before completing a cohabitation questionnaire.
For residents living west of Holland and Fisher Avenues, please call West End Legal Services at 596-1641.