Alberta minister's tweet about low-income transit passes was 'tone-deaf,' critic says

Alberta’s minister of community and social services is being called tone-deaf  for suggesting AISH and income support recipients prepare for her government’s payment date change by buying transit passes ahead of time. 

Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney tells recipients to buy passes ahead of time

Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney says there was 'no opportune' time to make the changes to the payment schedule for AISH and Income Support benefits. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Alberta's minister of community and social services is being called tone-deaf for suggesting recipients of Income Support and Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) benefits prepare for her government's payment date change by buying their transit passes ahead of time. 

The tweet from Rajan Sawhney, posted to her account Friday afternoon, included links to the relevant Calgary and Edmonton Transit web pages.

People who receive Income Support and AISH payments say they don't have extra money to buy a transit pass prior to getting their payments on Feb. 28. A single person on AISH receives $1,685 a month. 

A person on income support who is deemed to face barriers to employment receives a basic amount of $866 a month if they live in private housing.

Amy Park, an AISH recipient and advocate from Edmonton, said she couldn't believe Sawhney would tweet such a thing. 

"I was basically just stunned at her lack of knowledge and understanding of people who are on AISH and Income Support," Park said in an interview on Monday. "Just to be that tone-deaf was stunning to me."

(Rajan Sawhney/Twitter)

Sawhney's tweet came several weeks after the government announced the payment dates for AISH and income support would change starting in March. Payments will now be mailed or direct deposited on the first day of the month or on the last weekday of the month, if the first falls on a weekend. 

Under the old system, recipients would get their payments three to four business days ahead of time. That gave them money to buy transit passes before the previous one expired. They say they also had the assurance their rent money was in the bank.

'No opportune time'

The government said they changed the schedule to ensure there wasn't a long wait between payments, such as at Christmas, when there was a gap as long as 41 days. The ministry has seen a spike in requests for emergency help in January. 

However, the province has not explained why the change had to be made on such short notice. 

After two weeks of requesting an interview with Sawhney, CBC News spoke to her at an event in Edmonton on Friday. 

After initially being told the minister had another event to attend, Sawhney took a couple of questions but couldn't provide any clarity about why the change couldn't have waited a few more months.

"I think there's no opportune time," Sawhney said. "I recognize that this hasn't been easy for a lot of folks with the movements, and changing to their banking information and requirements, but quite honestly there's never a great time to do it.

"I didn't want to do it at Christmas time and disrupt anybody during the holiday season. So we opted to do it now."

When asked a second time why the change couldn't be made in the summer, Sawhney started turning away from the camera. 

"As I said, there was no opportune time to do it. Thank you." 

Marie Renaud, the NDP MLA for St. Albert and opposition critic for community and social services, said she was stunned when she read Sawhney's tweet, as it proves to her that the minister doesn't understand what life is like for those who live in poverty. 

Renaud said she takes issue with Sawhney claiming the payment date change was made to help AISH and income-support recipients. 

"That's just baloney because they missed the most important step," she said. "And that was just stopping and really thinking about what will this do, and then consulting with people whose lives are impacted. 

"I really wish this minister would step up and say, 'You know what? I've heard you. I'm going to listen. Let's go forward and do this in a more positive manner.'  But that's not happening." 

Park said the Self Advocacy Federation of Edmonton will meet with Sawhney in early March. She said the issue of the payment dates will definitely come up. 

"It'll be interesting to see what she has to say when she can't walk away from it," Park said. 

Government statistics from November show 67,600 people were on AISH and another 61,000 were on the Income Support caseload.

The provincial government subsidizes low income transit passes for people in Edmonton and Calgary. People have to qualify for the passes and can only purchase them at a limited number of locations.