On the day Ontario Premier Doug Ford was in Greater Sudbury to announce funding for a local business, his government was being denounced at a town hall meeting on cuts to Legal Aid.
Hosted by Sudbury NDP MPP Jamie West, about 30 people attended the event Wednesday, held at the Parkside Centre on Durham Street.
“Time flies when you're not having fun, as well,” West quipped, in noting a year has already passed since the provincial election.
Ford was holding a meet and greet in town at the same time, West said, meeting with the wealthy while the poorest in the community are dealing with the brunt of the government's budget decisions.
“That sort of paints a picture of the conversation we're having right now,” West said. “We're trying to figure out how to help how to help the most vulnerable
people, and he's raising money with the wealthiest people.”
While some people may believe that the $133 million reduction in Legal Aid funding will only affect people who break the law, he said that's not the case.
“You might not understand why it's important, or how it affects people,” he said. “The reality is sometimes you don't do anything wrong and you still need legal aid.”
Terry Copes, the outgoing executive director of the Sudbury Community Legal Clinic, described some of the impact of the cuts.
For example, people dealing with immigration issues can longer access Legal Aid, and clinics in the Toronto area that focus on specific groups.
“The specialty clinics serve specific groups, such as seniors or youth or Indigenous people in Toronto or most recently they created a black legal clinic, there also South Asian legal clinic and other ethnic-based clinics,” he said.
One area Ford is targetting, he said, are clinics that do advocacy work calling for legal and systemic reforms, which face 40 per cent funding cuts.
“What is interesting about the cuts the has they seem to be very targeted at affecting clinics' ability to challenge government action and government legislation,” Copes said.
With changes to the province's landlord-tenant rules and WSIB claims, he said the clinics won't be in a position to help those affected by those changes.
“There have also been cuts to the Ministry of Labour in terms of inspections for safety,” he said. “So the cuts seem to be really targeted at affecting the ability to organize and challenge against actions taken by the government against some of the most vulnerable people.”
Another area being affected by cuts are advocacy efforts on the part of people Ontario Disability Support Program – people who are particularly at risk because of the challenges they face knowing how and when to apply for help – and appeal decisions.
Odette St. Gelais, who said she deal with mental illness, said it took her years to get a long-term disability pension to go with her ODSP benefits so she would have enough income to get by.
“ODSP it gives you a little bit of money, but it doesn't give you enough money to go out and buy clothes that often and I had to rely a lot of times people giving me clothes,” St. Gelais said.
“And it took me a long time to get my pension. It took me at least two or three years.”
Laura Hall, professor of Indigenous Social Work at Laurentian University, said the recent genocide findings from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls highlight the importance of ensuring people have access to resources to fight for justice.
“I think about the continuity between this far right (Ford) government and the system of settler colonialism that has led to disproportionate levels of poverty among indigenous people,” Hall said. “We aren't dealing with people who will just magically change their mind ... So I don't think we should let up on this government at all. You should not let up on any government no matter who's in power. That's also an important lesson from indigenous peoples.”
West agreed with Hall's characterization of Ford. There's a difference between his public persona and reality, he said.
“He has this a sort of weird grin and stumbles around, but he knows exactly what he's doing,” West said. “It's not accidental. It's not that he's not informed and if we teach him he'll do better. He knows. He's choosing to do this, choosing to make these cuts.”
On Thursday, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada weighed in on the cuts, Richard Wagner warned that ensuring a fair justice system for all is a right for all Canadians.
While not commenting on Ontario specifically, he said studies in other countries have shown spending more on legal aid is six times cheaper than dealing with a poorly funded system, where mental health and justice system costs are higher.
"I think legal aid is essential to the justice system, to make sure that the justice system is strong and fair," he said. "It's also a smart investment."