Response to Review of Social Assistance in Ontario icon

Response to Review of Social Assistance in Ontario


ontario Native Women’s Association

Response to Review of Social Assistance in Ontario

Ontario Native Women’s Association

380 Ray Boulevard

Thunder Bay, ON P7B 4E6

Phone 807.623.3442 • Fax 807.623.1104

Prepared by D. Therriault, ONWA Policy Analyst

Judi Nelson Childs, ONWA Capacity Development

August 2011

Ontario’s core social assistance programs – Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program – together with other programs that make up Ontario’s income security system, continue to fall short in providing an economic safety net for individuals and families as well as promoting opportunity to ensure everyone can contribute to the long-term prosperity of the province.” – Report of the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council, May 2010


The Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) is a non-profit Aboriginal organization mandated to encourage the participation of Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit women in the development of Federal, Provincial, and Municipal policies, programs and legislation that impacts their lives ensuring that their specific needs are heard and tangibly addressed at key government tables. By providing the province of Ontario with feedback and recommendations as part of their current Social Services Review, the ONWA strengthens its commitment to Aboriginal women and their families. By calling greater attention to the concerns of this unique demographic as related to the provincial social service system, it is anticipated that government commitments to change will be made toward eliminating the multi-generational, systemic poverty experienced by Aboriginal women, and children in Ontario.

Aboriginal women and their families are among the most vulnerable members of our society. Numerous reports, research papers, studies and statistical data confirm Aboriginal women are more likely than non-Aboriginal women to experience poverty, homelessness, child welfare involvement, domestic violence, racism, gender discrimination, incarceration; historical ongoing issues exacerbated by the lack of culturally appropriate social services and supportive programming designed to address root causes of their ongoing struggles.

The 2001 Census shows the majority of urban Aboriginal families are headed by single, sole-support women, and these families are larger than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, with more than one third having more than three children per household. What is astonishing is that more than half of these women live on an annual income of less than $20,000.00. The key, therefore, to any successful and measurable outcomes related to Ontario’s overall poverty reduction strategy will be seen through the reduction of poverty among urban and rural Aboriginal women and their families. The struggles among Aboriginal women are far-reaching and symptomatic of larger issues than can be addressed through this submission; however, the current perpetuation of poverty and lack of culturally appropriate and relevant services provided to Aboriginal families CAN be addressed through social service program reforms.

^ Summary of Key Issues and Recommendations

ONWA has approached submission to the Commission for Review of Social Assistance in Ontario from the specific context of the needs of urban/rural Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit women and their families.

The existing approach to social services is a punitive model that does not offer an individualized approach to client support that is conducive to successful outcomes for Aboriginal families. It has been well documented that Aboriginal people respond positively and realize greater successes within programs that acknowledge the multiple barriers they face and are delivered specifically with them in mind versus being swallowed up within the current Ontario Works andOntario Disability Support Programs. (These programs seek to pigeon-hole applicants and recipients into pre-determined definitions that do not take into account proven success factors associated with Aboriginal peoples. Successes would include holistic, comprehensive service that revolves around the individual as an individual. OW currently provides special allowances and considerations to Canadian “newcomers” taking into account unique needs (such as deferrals for job searches, etcetera until the client is more settled, appropriately housed and familiar with their new community. Newcomers’ unique needs are similar to those of Ontario’s Aboriginal populations; language barriers, differences in education, literacy standards, and large families residing together in one house. These same unique situations are often experienced by Aboriginal participants, but not given the same considerations when determining eligibility or in the development of the Participation Agreement to accommodate.

Many Aboriginal recipients experience issues related to culture-shock, language and educational barriers, lack of access to things like computers and internet connections that hinder their ability to review and interpret guidelines, complete applications, resumes and look for gainful employment or even find suitable housing; all things that if not completed in an often very short and unrealistic time frame result in punitive outcomes; termination of benefits, suspension of benefits, and subsequent issuance of notice of eviction, etcetera. These same struggles among new Canadians are respected and considered throughout application assessment and program participation, however, not within the Aboriginal context. Many of the issues symptomatic of Aboriginal existence can be directly associated with “Residential School Trauma,” classified as a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, now recognized in DSM-IV criteria that again, goes ignored either by design or ignorance.

The OW program is designed to provide financial support while participants seek employment or complete necessary educational or skills upgrading to allow them to maintain employment or acquire new employment opportunities. ODSP is designed for people who are determined to be unemployable for the upcoming year. ODSP clients are deferred from mandatory participation, unlike OW ‘employable’ clients. OW programs were initially implemented to provide income supports and employment assistance to those in need. However, today the predominant attitude is one without supports, rather punishments for tasks unmet or rules broken; a delivery model not conducive to positive outcomes from any segment of the receiving population. OW rights, responsibilities and eligibility obligations are difficult if not impossible to understand and so compliance is unlikely as a result. Benefits are suspended as clients are determined to be ‘non-compliant’ based entirely on an individual caseworker’s interpretation of compliance; a subjective approach to assessment and participation eliminates a fair and equitable review every applicant deserves. This common scenario viewed from an already marginalized Aboriginal population that faces daily discrimination, historical shame because of false, public perceptions, and stereotypes, exacerbates an issue already out of control. Like it or not, the urban Aboriginal population receives little empathy from the general public and it would seem from municipal OW & provincial ODSP employees as well. There is a general lack of empathy toward the unique circumstances that affect Aboriginal women and their families.

In order to achieve any degree of success, a truly supportive model that meets the assistive needs of Aboriginal people MUST be developed and implemented as a standard of service delivery. Workers need to be there to assist, not judge. OW employees, in collaboration with program applicants, should draft a participation agreement that has a realistic chance of being successful, based on the “individual” client and their needs, deficits, and abilities.

OW employees must be present to offer information about additional culturally relevant services, have the time to walk a client through processes from start to finish. Relationship development and subsequent trust will bring social service program delivery to where it should be and work toward a renewed trust between Aboriginal clients and non-Aboriginal workers that alleviate some of the stresses of early Indian Act repression and residential school fall out.

With Ontario Works, some workers are especially dismissive and racist. There is an inability to understand and work with Aboriginal women, their cultures, and the diversity of people and their needs.” – Urban Aboriginal Task Force (UATF Report 2007)

Ottawa Focus Group


  1. The Province of Ontario will commit to developing new positions dedicated to meeting the unique needs of Aboriginal people in the various urban and rural communities across the province. ^ Each district will hire an appropriate number of “Aboriginal Liaison Workers” (based on allowable case-loads and number of self-identified Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit families and singles within the given district), that will provide the assistive and supportive services Aboriginal peoples require to ensure their ‘unique’ circumstances are assessed. Such an approach will result in applicants having to apply for Social Assistance through a specific model resembling Gladu Court and Gladu reports, OW workers will then be able to take into account the unique circumstances that likely resulted in an applicant having to seek assistance on the first place.

  1. OW/ODSP workers will advocate for clients where intervention may be required. In consideration of “equal opportunity employment,” it is suggested that priority be given to women of Aboriginal, Métis or Inuit descent for certain positions e.g. administrative, customer service, etc. These workers will possess a greater understanding and empathy for their unique client-base as well as being more appropriately qualified. Aboriginal employees would also provide a greater level of comfort to Aboriginal additional applicants/recipients.

  1. The province of Ontario will seek and confirm formal partnership agreements with local Aboriginal service organizations where needed for referral or out sourcing in order to ensure that the necessary support services are available and maintained through a comprehensive, coordinated and seamless delivery approach. The Province will advocate the federal government for additional and necessary funding required to ensure such local Aboriginal service organizations can meet the needs of recipients and the subsequent demands resultant of OW/ODSP service agreements with identified local organizations.

  1. The province of Ontario will ensure a comprehensive and supportive approach to program delivery within all districts. Internal steps will be taken to review all district practices to ensure all procedural elements are static across the province. Punitive outcomes such as suspending benefits for tasks undone, defining compliance or failing to meet unrealistic deadlines, etcetera will no longer be at the discretion of individual case workers. In addition, the province will introduce an Aboriginal Ombudsman making the complaint mechanism for Aboriginal clients easier to undertake, navigate and, more importantly, understand the process. The supportive assistance of an Ombudsman can resolve issues with minimal conflict and expense.

The existence of cultural barriers and differences are not adequately addressed and given the necessary respect within the current system and its subsequent programs. The non-existence of Aboriginal specific policy and procedural practices within current social services specifically, speaks to Ontario’s lack of true understanding of the distinct and unique cultural and the inherent differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people (clients and workers). Its absence translates into an overall ministerial culture of ignorance among employees, management and the provincial government mechanism as a whole. If training and knowledge transfer concerning the unique differences and substantive qualities of one’s clients and neighbours is not part of the overall professional and personal culture of a ministry and/or province, then ignorance can be the only definition and unsuccessful outcomes the only deliverable. By ignoring the unique circumstances of Aboriginal Ontarians, current OW/ODSP policies seek to disentitle, vs. entitle - and further promote cultural genocide in order to obtain or maintain eligibility.

Case workers working with a family of Aboriginal, Métis or Inuit descent are often faced with family structures, gender roles, and extended family situations, unfamiliar to them. Also, the same workers may have to address language barriers, culturally different communication styles, and social, economic, and political factors that affect a specific family. The province has not provided adequate training to employees to deal with such issues, nor are they committed to adequately monitoring that their caseworkers take into account those circumstances when creating Participation Agreements, or making decisions on eligibility and compliance. These are the barriers that must be overcome if the over-represented rates of poverty among Aboriginal families in Ontario are to be even marginally diminished.


  1. The province of Ontario will develop and implement a culturally specific sensitivity training program that will require completion by ALL ministerial employees including OW/ODSP workers. The province will commit the necessary financial resources to contract the development and ongoing delivery of an Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit specific cultural sensitivity training course for employees to bridge the current knowledge gap, foster the necessary empathy among its workers, and build mutual respect between the province and Aboriginal stakeholders including individuals, families, political and service organizations. This training will also look at alternative ways to enhance the education level and employability of Aboriginal clients, with the intent of creating a Participation Agreement for the client which is truly developed mutually, and increases the capacity of the client to maintain eligibility while increasing skills.

^ Benefits do NOT meet the needs of recipients, regularly falling short on meeting the basic needs for shelter, food, clothing and transportation. The issues of “healthy” food, “safe” housing, and “affordable” childcare are not attainable for most OW recipients. The issue of insufficient rates for recipients has been repeatedly voiced since the initial 20% cut in the 1990’s by the Harris government.

We have heard from countless clients over an extended time frame through numerous reports, focus groups, community consultations, etcetera, that if rates are not addressed in a meaningful and realistic manner, poverty statistics within the province will continue to grow and place greater strains on the system and existing supports. Real investment in people and not a focus on the administration of the program itself to meet the needs of the delivery agent are required e.g. for many deliver sites, an administration priority and indicator of success is caseworker ‘efficiency’, measured by statistical data such as how many clients/applicants are seen, how quickly interviews are completed, are update reports overdue, how long a client remains on assistance, etcetera.

Referring once again to 2001 census data in relation to the over-whelming over-representation of Aboriginal peoples among those experiencing poverty:

  • 40% of single Aboriginal mothers earn less than $12,000 per year, 47% of the average Aboriginal population in Ontario earns less than $10,000 annually!

  • 52% of Aboriginal children in Ontario are defined as living “in poverty.”

2009-2010 social assistance expenditures comprised approximately 6.6% of Ontario’s total expenditure. (Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario – Social Assistance Today); which


  1. The province of Ontario will review current rates against contemporary cost of living numbers and make the necessary adjustment to OW/ODSP recipient benefits by not only returning them to their pre-1996 level, but increasing them additionally to reflect the ‘real’ cost of living.

  2. Additionally, the current means by which rates are calculated will be revised to include regional adjustments for northern urban and rural communities, as well as those municipalities such as Toronto and Ottawa whose current average rental rates far exceed those in other Ontario municipalities. Recipients will be viewed as people and not files or ‘cases,’ and the reality of their day-to-day lives adequately supported.

  3. The current practice of asset depletion will be eliminated as policy. Recipients should not be required to sell off or reduce assets prior to support being provided by their governments. Specifically, RESPs and RRSPs should not have to be liquefied if over the eligibility amount. These are important investments in people’s futures that if cashed out, will result in future provincial expenditures.

^ Unemployment rates among Aboriginal people are much higher than those of non-Aboriginal people. Despite stating that employment is a major factor for migration to urban centres, Aboriginal people continue to experience higher than average rates of unemployment, among the highest in the province and across the country. This can be explained through understanding the specific issues unique to this segment of the population. However, as has been previously highlighted concerning program delivery, employment supports and in fact, the greater majority of provincial services whether social services or beyond, do not make such considerations nor provide concessions to those contributing factors like culture shock, language and literacy and education barriers, for Aboriginal families on assistance.

Before anyone can meaningfully attempt to find and keep a job, several fundamental requirements must be in place: adequate education; applicable/transferrable skills garnered through previous work experience; cross-cultural respect and confidence. The basic foundations to achieving independence through employment are the very things that Aboriginal peoples have long been struggling with. By the end of 2017 it is projected that Aboriginal people aged 15+ will be close to 1 million in number. This is a significant number that should be viewed as an important piece to the province’s future labour force shortages. Training to ensure Aboriginal women and their families are ready to assume needed positions are imperative to a prosperous future Ontario. Statistics from the 2006 Census confirm the need for provincial and federal commitment to education, skills and training support for Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit peoples in the province.

  • Aboriginal people have lower educational attainment, with 34% having less than a high school diploma compared to 15% of the general population; this is more than twice the average!

  • Between the 2001 and 2006 Census, Aboriginal employment has increased from 57% to only 63%. Clearly something is broken and must be addressed immediately.


  1. The Province of Ontario will commit to developing new positions dedicated to meeting the specific needs of Aboriginal people in the various urban and rural communities across the province that require employment skills and training assistance. Each district will hire an appropriate number of “Aboriginal Liaison Workers” (based on allowable case-loads and number of self-identified Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit families and singles within the given district), that will provide the assistive and supportive services Aboriginal peoples require to secure meaningful employment as well as advocate OW/ODSP workers on behalf of clients who may be experiencing difficulty meeting specific program demands regarding employment. In consideration of “equal opportunity employment,” it is suggested that priority be given to women of Aboriginal, Métis or Inuit descent for these positions. Such applicants will possess a greater understanding and empathy for this unique client-base as well as being professionally qualified. Aboriginal employees would also provide a greater level of comfort to Aboriginal applicants/recipients.

  1. The province of Ontario will seek and confirm formal partnership agreements with local Aboriginal service organizations and OW municipal delivery sites where needed for referral or out sourcing in order to ensure that the necessary support services for skills and capacity development are available and maintained through a comprehensive, coordinated and seamless delivery approach. The Province will advocate the federal government for the additional and necessary funding they require to ensure such local Aboriginal service organizations can meet the needs of Aboriginal recipients and the subsequent demands resultant of OW/ODSP existing short-comings.

  1. The province of Ontario will commit to pooling greater financial resources into programming geared specifically towards increasing Aboriginal employability across the province in the form of adult Aboriginal training, skills and capacity development programming.

  1. The province of Ontario (through the Ministry of Labour & Human Rights Tribunals) will ensure workplace equity and elimination of discriminatory management practices among local employers who choose to work with OW. Employers will be held tangibly accountable for reports of wrong doing associated with wage, gender and cultural discrimination with the implementation of regular employer evaluations and client interviews conducted by OW/ODSP staff. Accountability is a requirement to ensuring success.

^ Social housing stocks do not meet the unique needs of growing Aboriginal individuals and families migrating to urban centres. Where we eat, sleep and, raise our families MUST be safe and affordable. Everyone, no matter their station in life, has the right to a “home.” Unfortunately, municipal housing stocks are perilously low. Waiting lists both outside and within Aboriginal specific housing programming are years long. One requires a fixed address to access assistance, and with virtually no access to subsidized units, geared to income units across most cities in the province, many families, again statistically over-represented by Aboriginal women and their families, are forced to secure accommodation in unsafe structures and neighbourhoods because they cannot afford otherwise.

Today, three times as many Aboriginal peoples report having to live in overcrowded conditions than non-Aboriginal counterparts. 23% of Aboriginal peoples report living in homes that are in need of major repairs, again, three times the rate among non-Aboriginal counterparts. The major disparity among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal homes is first and foremost the astounding differences in household incomes. This may be because Aboriginal peoples, who are living on annual incomes between $10,000-$19,999, are trying to find ways to lower their housing costs in the absence of safe, subsidized accommodations. Social services then, and the overarching goal of poverty reduction, CANNOT be addressed without discussing the real need for Aboriginal housing policy off-reserve and financial commitments to core housing needs.

Aboriginal women and their families need affordable rental housing, transitional and supportive housing, greater assisted home ownership programming and greater access to emergency shelters.


  1. The province will commit to partnership development with existing off-reserve Aboriginal Housing Corporations through the implementation of a collaboration that sees housing stocks owned and administered by and for Aboriginal people. Ontario will commit the necessary resources and act on the opportunities presented through collaboration with Aboriginal service and housing providers.

  2. ^ The province will request sufficient funds from the federal government to assist with meeting the needs of the off-reserve Aboriginal community in a realistic way. Ontario will be able to invest the sufficient, consistent and ongoing funds into acquisition of construction affordable housing stocks, including operational and maintenance funding for existing stocks.

  3. The province will raise the current maximum per unit contribution for housing. The existing $70,000 maximum government contribution is insufficient and does not reflect the contemporary costs associated with housing. The contribution will be adjusted to reflect the actual cost of housing per region, location, size, cost of construction and other key variables.

  4. Ontario will commit resources to the development and construction of transitional housing units and programming that currently do not exist specifically for Aboriginal women.


For far too long Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit women have suffered the brunt of the province’s inability to meet their needs. Today these women and their families are among the poorest, the most inexperienced, uneducated and unhealthy people not only in Ontario but across the country. Ontario now has the opportunity to set precedent and show the remainder of the country how it can redevelop a broken relationship through commitment, respect and understanding of the truly inherent and statistically proven difference among its Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations. Yes, social services are about helping people, but more than this, it is about understanding and human compassion.

ONWA exists to table the issues of Aboriginal women and their families and to advocate for the necessary local, provincial and national changes to see the struggles they face eliminated and resume lives of equality and confidence over ones of poverty, pain and suffering. Ontario can see these realizations through by heeding the recommendations provided not only by ONWA, but by the myriad of individuals, organizations and service providers who have also shared stories and called for change.

There are so many people who have to get by with all types of nothing, whether it’s no food, no affection, no education, or no respect. To alleviate any degree of any burden – to make something better – is the pinnacle of accomplishment and hope." - Alaina Smith, 14 yrs

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