The B.C. government has opened discussions with advocacy groups about the controversial claw back to a free bus pass program for people with disabilities.
Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell has been under fire after her government announced changes in the budget to disability assistance.
The B.C. Liberals increased disability assistance but at the same time took away the free transit passes for around 35,000 people on disability assistance. Inclusion B.C.'s online petition to restore the bus pass program has nearly 15,000 signatures.
Stilwell met with disability advocates behind closed doors on Tuesday.
"The minister is going to get back to us on how we are going to work together moving forward to address the issues that have come out of the petition," said Inclusion B.C. Executive Director Faith Bodnar.
"What the bus pass is a symbol for people to say that this government understands some of the changes that people with disabilities face, I am confident we can work something that is fair and equitable."
The Liberals have argued the changes made the benefits more equitable for the roughly 50,000 people on disability assistance who live in communities where there is no access to consistent public transit.
More funding not ruled out
Bodnar is not sure at this point that restoring the bus pass is necessary, but she says there needs to be sustainable funding.
Prior to these recent changes in the budget, the disability assistance rate had not been increased for nine years.
"It was a genuine and authentic meeting," said Bodnar. "This is the consultation that should have happened before. I am very encouraged she invited us all to a meeting. This has been very difficult to all of us involved. We want to now commit to working together."
The government says the meeting was set up to provide an opportunity for Minister Stilwell to provide clarity on why the changes were made. The province has not yet ruled out a potential increase in funding for people on disability assistance.
"I know many people, including the stakeholders I met with, would like to see a larger increase in assistance rates, and that's something we will continue to look at," said Stilwell in a statement.
"It is clear from the meeting that the stakeholders' main concern is about higher rates, not the transportation subsidies that are now being provided to all 100,000 clients."
NDP wants more supports
The NDP has been critical of the government changes. MLA Michelle Mungall says bringing back the free bus pass is the first step in restoring confidence in the government from people living with disabilities.
Mungall added that along with a reversal of the claw back, the government needs to increase disability assistance.
"What other jurisdictions are looking at doing is bumping those supports up to another level so those people aren't living so far below the poverty line."