Saturday, 10 August 2019

Provincial Day of Action Held to Call for a Stop to Legal Aid Cuts

By Neil Armstrong

Photo contributed  A rally held outside the Constituency Office of Premier Doug Ford in Toronto, Ontario

A coalition of community members, frontline legal aid workers, and lawyers is calling on the government of Ontario to stop the cuts to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) and community legal clinics.

On July 30 protests and actions were held in communities across the province to demand that Attorney General Doug Downey and Premier Doug Ford to reverse the cuts to funding the legal aid system in the province.

The Progressive Conservative government slashed nearly 30 per cent of the organization's budget in April and said that the LAO could no longer use provincial funds for refugee and immigration cases.

There were actions in different parts of Toronto, Brampton, Bracebridge, Fort Frances, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener, Little Current, Marathon, London, Mississauga, Moosonee, Newmarket, Owen Sound, Peterborough, Renfrew, Sarnia/Point Edward, Thunder Bay and Windsor. 

“Ford's $300 million cuts to legal aid will hurt a huge number of people in Ontario, including tenants, low-wage workers, women fleeing violence, people struggling with mental illness, workers hurt on the job, and parents with custody or support issues. They're the biggest cuts ever faced by legal aid and community legal clinics,” said the organizers.

The Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC) joined the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO), Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic (CSALC), and Centre for Immigrant and Community Services (CICS) in the provincial day of action outside the constituency office of Premier Ford.

 The BLAC is a specialty legal clinic that works to combat individual and systemic anti-black racism through the provision of legal aid services. It provides free legal assistance to low to no income Black Ontarians who meet its case selection and financial eligibility requirements.

“Doug Ford says that he is loved by the Black community. He says that he has massive support from the Black community. He says that he loves us and that we love him. That there is no other politician in this country who has supported us more than he has. This statement is backed up by telling us that he takes 80 young Black children to his cottage for several days in the summer months.

“The Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC) is here to tell Mr. Ford that the 80 children that he takes to his cottage does not the “Black community” make. That while some may love beneficence of taking Black children to his cottage, doing so is not a solution to the massive systemic discrimination and inequity faced by the over 600,000 members of the very diverse Black community across Ontario. And, neither are the cuts that he has made to policing oversight, education, social services and Legal Aid Ontario,” said Ruth Goba, executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre, outside Ford’s office.

Goba said if Ford really wants to support the Black community, she would urge him to “ask the young Black people stuck in detention who can no longer get legal aid certificates for bail because of Mr. Ford’s cuts to legal aid if they feel supported and loved? And who are very likely to be in detention because of racial profiling in the first place.”
She would also urge the premier to “ask the Black refugee fleeing domestic violence who can’t get assistance from a legal clinic or Legal Aid Ontario to make their refugee claim, if they feel supported and loved?”

“My guess, Mr. Ford, though I do not profess to represent the entire Black community in the province, is that if you thought to ask these questions, the answers would be a resounding NO!! This should matter to you. It should matter very much. If you truly do “love” and care about the Black community as you purport to, BLAC urges you to reverse the cuts to Legal Aid Ontario and other areas that impact vulnerable Ontarians.”

Photo contributed Staff of Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC) and other community legal aid clinics outside Doug Ford's Etobicoke North constituency office

In a statement on the legislative changes in Ontario that it issued in May, BLAC said that without consulting stakeholders, the government cut Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) funding by a third, with an anticipated $31 million cut next year. 

“This will have a severe impact on the LAO clinic system and consequently, communities most impacted by social and economic inequities,” it said. 

BLAC said what is particularly concerning to BLAC and others is the government’s decision to single out legal services provided to immigrants and refugees, and effectively cut 100% of its funding to these services.

It notes that immigration is a major source of growth of the Black population, with 53% of all African Canadians in Ontario born outside the country.

“The cuts to the immigration and refugee law services will put people’s lives in danger, and is an attack on human rights. Community and specialty clinics such as BLAC provide services on issues that are most critical to our communities.”

 These service areas, which intersect, include housing, income security, education, health care, mental health, disability programs, workers’ rights, domestic violence, and environmental issues.

It notes that clinics prioritize client and community needs and attempt to meet them strategically, making efficient use of scarce resources.

Clinics use lawyers, non-lawyers, public education initiatives and other delivery systems in order to deliver services cost-effectively to those who cannot otherwise afford lawyers and court fees.

“These LAO cuts have the effect of creating further barriers to access to justice for the most marginalized members of our community. These LAO cuts will impact all low to no income Ontarians,” BLAC said.

The coalition members are: Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario,
Ontario Association of Child Protection Lawyers, OPSEU, Society of United Professionals (IFPTE 160), and Voices of Scarborough.

[This story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Aug. 8-14, 2019.]

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