The Nova Scotia government says it's not necessarily a human rights violation for the province to refuse to fund supported housing in the community for people with disabilities.
Opening arguments began Monday in Halifax in a potentially groundbreaking human rights case where two people with disabilities argue they have the right to live in supported housing in the community, rather than being kept in institutions with restrictions and locked doors.
Forty-five-year-old Joseph Delaney and 46-year-old Beth MacLean say they should be permitted to move from the hospital-like settings into small homes where assistance is provided for things such as meals and personal care.
A third complainant, Sheila Livingstone, died in 2016, at the age of 69. But her story will be told by family members and the complainants' lawyer, Vince Calderhead.
Kevin Kindred, a lawyer with the Justice Department, told Nova Scotia Human Rights Board of Inquiry chairperson Walter Thompson that he'll argue that individual cases and the reasons for refusing transfers into community settings may be complex and are not necessarily acts of discrimination.
He also said it's incorrect for the complainants to liken their situation to non-disabled people who receive welfare and public housing, as this is "not comparing apples to apples."
Calderhead rejected the argument.
"Imagine any other group in our society, who we might say to them, you must live in an institution, you must be segregated away from the rest of society. Just the thought of that, whether it's on the basis of language or race or ethnic status, would send shivers up our spines," he said.
"That's why this case is incredibly important."
Livingstone's family members were at the hearing.
Her niece, Jackie McCabe-Sieliakus, said she was there to show support for people who suffered as her aunt did, living in Emerald Hall, part of the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth.
"She was stuck in a place she should not have been," said McCabe-Sieliakus. The family was told Livingstone's only other option was to live in a facility in Yarmouth, far from family. She eventually moved there.
Jean Coleman of the Disability Rights Coalition, an intervenor in the case, said the difference between living in an institution such as Emerald Hall and in a community-based care facility is huge.
"There is nothing warm and cozy about institutions and you don't have choices, when to get up, when to go to bed, who you're with, what you eat. It's very isolating and very segregated," she said.
"Our dearest wish is that people with disabilities will have a choice as to where to live, they'll be supported in the community so they will have a life, like you and I."
Calderhead estimated there are about 1,500 disabled people on waiting lists seeking community-based supports.
"They are confronted by years-long wait, are told very often, 'You need to move to the other end of the province before we can offer you a place' … or are told, 'We can only offer you a place in an institution.'"