Supreme Court to Hear First Social and Economic Rights Claim: Gosselin v. Quebec
In the next few months, probably early in the autumn, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear an historic case - the first claim under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the first claim under human rights legislation to a right to an adequate level of social assistance for those in need. There is a lot riding on it for poor people and for human rights in Canada. The Charter Committee on Poverty Issues (CCPI) has been granted leave to intervene. So have the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) and Rights and Democracy, previously the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, headed by Warren Allmand.
Over the years, CCPI has intervened in various cases to urge the Supreme Court to interpret the Canadian Charter so as not to exclude the fundamental human rights of people living in poverty. We have argued for an interpretation of the Charter that is consistent with international human rights law, including social and economic rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living. But there has never been a case at the Supreme Court that dealt with these issues as directly as this one.
Back in 1989, Louise Gosselin went to court in Quebec to challenge draconian reductions imposed by Quebec’s experiment in "workfare". As a single employable, under 30 not enrolled in a workfare placement, Louise. Gosselin had her benefit reduced in 1987 and 1988 from an entitlement of $434 per month to an unbelievable $158 a month. On January 1, 1989 it was increased to mere $185. It is fairly indisputable that $158/month in Montreal doesn’t even cover the most basic necessities of food, clothing and housing. Louise Gosselin was forced by these cuts to her entitlements to endure homelessness and many risks to her security.
Gosselin argued that her right to equality had been violated by these grossly inadequate benefits imposed on the basis of her age. She further argued that her right to security of the person had been violated. And finally, she argued that the Government of Quebec had violated its own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (the Quebec human rights legislation).
Quebec is the only jurisdiction in North America to include "social and economic rights" in its human rights legislation. Section 45 of the Quebec Charter states that:
Every person in need has a right, for himself and his family, to measures of financial assistance and to social measures provided for by law, susceptible of ensuring such person an acceptable standard of living.
While the Quebec Charter does not allow individuals to file complaints with the Quebec Human Rights Commission when this right is violated, it does allow them to go to court. This will be the first case in which the Supreme Court considers this provision in the Quebec Charter.
More significantly, it will also be the first case in which the Court will consider whether the right to "security of the person" in section 7 of the Canadian Charter prohibits cuts to welfare which deny recipients basic necessities and whether the guarantee of equality includes substantive obligations to provide adequately for disadvantaged groups relying on social assistance. One never knows what issues the Court will take up, but it is fair to say that what is at stake in this case is possibly whether the protections of the rights to equality and security under the Canadian Charter will mean much to poor people, ie. whether they will be applied to government action or inaction which denies poor people any security or meaningful enjoyment of dignity and equality.
U.N. human rights bodies have been critical of lower courts in Canada for failing to give proper consideration to social and economic rights under international human rights law when they have considered the plight of poor people. They have been reassured that to date, the Supreme Court has not followed lower courts and that it has recognized that the courts have an important role in protecting the rights of the most disadvantaged groups, including in the social and economic domain. This case offers the Supreme Court of Canada a chance to give meaningful content to the rights of poor people to dignity, equality and security in so affluent a country as Canada It gives the Court an opportunity to affirm that when Canada violates fundamental rights under international human rights law, these violations will likely also run afoul of the Charter. It provides an opportunity to affirm that the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, that is so fundamental under international human rights law, is also at the core of our rights under the Charter to security and equality.
Hats off to Louise Gosselin and her lawyers for sticking with this claim for all of these years. Log on to www.equalityrights.org/ccpi for updates.
Back to the Gosselin case webpage