It was a nerve-racking and lonely experience being a single woman on public assistance when the ruling government was making political hay by labelling us as "potato-chip-eating, beer-drinking couch potatoes."What a difference a little court victory makes.
The road from public humiliation to the courthouse where the "spouse in the house" rule met its end was strewn with despair. At age 32, I found myself raising my two-year-old severely asthmatic son on my own. How I arrived there was a complicated tale -- though no more so than the stories of thousands of other women who find themselves in similar situations not of their own making.
I had been working at a local car factory making a very good income. My son's father looked after our child during the evening, and I cared for him him during the day. Then the relationship fell apart and he left town. Suddenly, I was without a caregiver, and after searching frantically for a qualified sitter, I had to quit my job. It was clear no one was interested in being responsible for an asthmatic toddler who required a great deal of attention.
Soon, I obtained welfare. Determined not to be reliant on the system forever, I also accepted a part-time babysitting job and tried my hand at night school at a local college. I loved it, and decided that I was quite capable of continuing my education at university level. I also attended a training course for foster parents. I started fostering teen girls, which I absolutely loved.
Approximately three and a half years into my BA, which I was doing entirely by correspondence courses and a typewriter, I met someone who was to become my significant other years later. He was also in school. In the summer of 1995, I inquired into the rules around accommodation-sharing with respect to social assistance. My caseworker assured me that two people could live together as long as income was claimed. Reid and I decided to give it a try and move in together effective September 1995.
(Prior to the Tory legislation, social recipients were allowed to live with an adult of the opposite sex for three years before a spouse was declared. Deductions based on shared accommodations began immediately. After the three years, the recipient had to apply as a family if their financial situation was such, or go off the system entirely.)
Two weeks before Reid moved in, my worker called to say that the rules might be changing. By this time Reid had been accepted at a nearby college. We were told that both of us couldn't apply for student loans and attend school at the same time. Reid quit and started working at a job for $8 an hour. I found a part-time job as a telemarketer in the evening, and continued my schooling.
Everything we earned was declared. Reid had to pay half the rent and half the groceries. I declared my earnings from babysitting and my part-time job, so the amount of my assistance was adjusted accordingly. Dental and medical benefits for my son and me were paid for by the province.
Around November 1995, my worker told me it was necessary for me to fill out new forms because of the new "spouse in the house" law. Little did I know that that infamous piece of legislation was to play a major role in my life for the next 8 years.I can't begin to tell you how humiliating and intrusive some of the questions were on this form. They asked what I called Reid's mother and what Reid called mine; they asked what my son called Reid, and if Reid ever bought him presents for his birthday; they asked if Reid ever babysat my son and whether he ever had any contact with my son's school; they asked who did the grocery shopping and who did the laundry; they asked anything and everything they could to help them "determine if Reid was my spouse.'Two weeks before Christmas -- the day I was putting up my Christmas tree, as a matter of fact -- my worker called to say I was being cut off benefits, including my son's medical and dental coverage. I'm not sure how I got through that day. All I could think about was how I was going to obtain asthma medication for my son, never mind how I was going to feed and clothe him on a part-time salary.
So I fought back. I was contacted by an organization in London that was considering legal action against the "spouse in the house" rule. I was told that it would take years for a decision to be made once we took it to court.
I didn't believe it was right for a government to determine whether I was allowed to try to form a relationship or not. I didn't believe it was right for a government to penalize my child by taking away his ability to receive medication because his mother wanted to begin a relationship. I didn't believe it was right for a government to force a woman to be dependent on a man just because she was receiving a small amount of assistance.
And I didn't believe it was right for a government to insist that Reid be made responsible for my son when, in fact, he was not legally responsible. I didn't believe it was right, and, as it turns out, neither did the courts
What am I doing now, you wonder? I completed my BA, I work as a medical secretary for a local physician and I continue to foster teen girls. Seven years later, I own my own home and am happily married to Reid. I will admit to partaking of a few potato chips now and then, but I don't drink beer and I absolutely refuse to buy cans of dented tuna.
On May 13, the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled that the Tory "spouse in the house" ruleviolates the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms. The law that forced women with children off the welfare rolls if they cohabited with men was legally challenged by four women, of whom Sandy Falkiner-Budgell was one.