Editorial: Legal Aid Ontario cutbacks are a short sighted misstep

For 32 years the Manitoulin Legal Clinic has been providing services to low income Islanders in the areas of community development, public legal education and offering summary advice, brief services and legal representation. The recent decision of the Ford government to drastically cut Legal Aid Ontario’s funding is not only an unconscionable attack on the province’s most vulnerable, but even more reprehensible when it is considered that the Progressive Conservatives have used the cover of refugees and immigrants as a shield from any blowback.

It can come as no surprise to anyone paying the least bit of attention that the cost of participating in Canada’s legal system has spiralled far beyond the reach of the middle income cohort, let alone the poor. It could rarely be said in the past that the Canadian legal system could be defined as a justice system although it has largely served the silver spoon crowd fairly well. Canada lags the entire developed world outside of North America in access to justice. With this latest travesty of a budget cutback, Doug Ford and his colleagues are making a mockery of what little that was just.

The easy targets of immigrants and refugees set aside, too many citizens equate Legal Aid Ontario with the protection of criminals from prosecution. But legal aid defence is only a small part of what that organization does. 

The Manitoulin Legal Clinic practices poverty law, and Manitoulin has plenty of citizens whose poverty qualifies them for assistance. When decisions are made that impact negatively on those who depend on Ontario Works, the Ontario Disability Support Program and the Canada Pension Plan, or for those who have issues that must come before the Landlord and Tenant Act tribunal, who need representation to challenge the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board or need assistance  for Criminal Injuries Compensation Board hearings, the Manitoulin Legal Clinic is the only place they can turn to to ensure their access to any semblance of justice.

The Manitoulin Legal Clinic also assists the poor with wills  and powers of attorney, consumer and debt issues, accessing birth and death certificates, accessing name changes and a host of other matters that our bureaucratic labyrinth are so difficult to navigate—especially for those with low incomes.

The April 11 announcement by the provincial government to reduce the budget of Legal Aid Ontario by 30 percent will have a direct and devastating impact on those services that are provided to low-income residents in the Manitoulin Districts and across the entire province.

This from a government whose blatantly propagandistic press releases daily trumpet that theirs is a “government for the people.”

With these and a host of other cutbacks that have disproportionally targeted the province’s most vulnerable, of which the North and Manitoulin count more than their share amongst their population numbers, the Ford government clearly defines “the people” within very tight and exclusive parameters.

If there is one thing that has been proven will impact this government’s decisions and effect change it is hearing from “the people.” The outpouring of anger and pushback the Ford government has received over their decisions on autism and the loss of jobs in the educational sector are recent examples where this government has rethought its initial ideological cuts. 

When the people start to bite back, this government tends to pull in its fangs.

The Ford government would do well to remember that it was the unprecedented personal unpopularity of former premier Kathleen Wynne that got them elected, not any facet of their own election platform—as those who might recall during the last election campaign that platform was missing in action.

Contact your MPP, or the nearest Progressive Conservative MPP to voice your objection (the ever approachable Roy Romano springs to mind. Better yet, Premier Ford likes to take calls and answer emails personally—we are sure he would like to hear from the electors of the province).

Remind him that governments tend to get themselves unelected, rather than elected, and three years isn’t really all that long down the road.