December 2002 was a most significant month for women’s equality seeking organizations. The Supreme Court of Canada released three important decisions (Gosselin, Walsh, and Chamberlain, the federal government tabled Bill C-22 in the House of Commons, proposing major changes to the Divorce Act in the area of custody and access, and NAWL submitted an extensive brief to the federal Pay Equity Task Force, that was endorsed by NAC, DAWN, CRIAW and the Fédération nationale des femmes canadiennes-françaises. In the middle of this, on December 19, 2002, the jury of the Kimberly Rogers inquest released its recommendations.
The Fall 2002 edition of Jurisfemme set out Kimberly’s story and briefly discussed NAWL’s involvement in a coalition that intervened in the inquest into her death. This piece provides the next installment of the story.
At the Kimberly Rogers inquest, the jury listened to testimony about Kimberly’s death for two months. They heard evidence about how hot her apartment was, how little she had to live on, and how difficult the conditions of her six-month sentence of house arrest were. Those conditions were all exacerbated by her pregnancy. The jury found that, while serving a conditional sentence for welfare fraud, Kimberly took her own life with an overdose of antidepressants. A suicidologist at the inquiry testified that the conditions of Kimberly’s sentence were crucial factors leading to her suicide.
The jury released 14 recommendations including recommendations that the government of Ontario eliminate the zero tolerance lifetime ban on social assistance for welfare fraud and that the adequacy of social assistance rates be assessed. The Honourable Brenda Elliot, Ontario’s Minister of Community, Family and Children’s Services, was quick to defend the government’s policies, and immediately indicated that the government would not consider the recommendations made by the jury.
As a coalition of interveners, we were pleased by some of the recommendations and disappointed that the recommendations did not explore some of the more systemic explanations for Kimberly’s death. Some of the recommendations, like the two described above, are positive, although they have not resulted in any change in policy by the government of Ontario. The ban on social assistance after a finding of welfare fraud creates disastrous consequences for people living in poverty, and social assistance rates are embarrassingly low.
Although those recommendations are of critical importance, we had hoped that the jury would have been able to hear evidence of the systemic nature of the discrimination faced by Kimberly Rogers. This evidence was, however, precluded by a ruling issued by Dr. Eden, the coroner. That ruling denied us the opportunity to call evidence that demonstrated that the failure to consider the unique needs and circumstances of people charged with welfare fraud disadvantages marginalized members of society, and constitutes a form of systemic discrimination against women and people on social assistance.
As Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, summarized, “[t]he coalition believes that the jury issued the limited recommendations that it did, in large part because they were prevented from hearing key evidence and then they were subsequently discouraged from addressing the very real issues that Kimberly’s death challenges us all to deal with.”
Minister Elliot’s quick response, which asserted that the Ontario government was not going to heed even the more limited recommendations of the jury, was shocking. However, despite the Ontario government’s initial response, equality-seeking groups and individuals have been active in lobbying for the adoption of the jury’s recommendations. The Committee to Remember Kimberly Rogers has a “Post Rogers Inquest Action Kit” that can be accessed at the DAWN Ontario website http://dawn.thot.net/Kimberly_Rogers
Hopefully, with enough political pressure, the government will be forced to change its approach. There are also other avenues currently being pursued by equality advocates to change some of the most severe government policies. In particular, there is a constitutional challenge to the lifetime ban on receiving social assistance, noted in the previous piece.
For more information, please contact Kim Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim Brooks teaches torts and tax at Queen’s University, Faculty of Law and is a co-coordinator of NAWL’s National Steering Committee.