New Brunswick woman wins round in fight against 'unfair' pension rules

For years a New Brunswick woman has been fighting what she calls an unfair policy of the Canada Pension Plan that has prevented her from collecting the pensions of both her deceased husbands.

Robena Weatherley has been fighting a rule that denies her pensions from more than one deceased spouse

Robena Weatherley, in this CBC file photo from 2016, protested the removal of one of her former husband's pensions, and the Social Security Tribunal of Canada has ruled in her favour. (CBC)

For years a New Brunswick woman has been fighting what she calls an unfair policy of the Canada Pension Plan that has prevented her from collecting the pensions of both her deceased husbands. 

Robena Weatherley lost her first husband in a helicopter accident in 1969. Afterwards, she was entitled to survivor benefits.

But a Canada Pension Plan rule suspended the benefits when she remarried in 1973. They were given back when the law changed in 1987 with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The benefits were once again stripped away after the death of Weatherley's second husband in 2012.

Limited to 1 pension

Under CPP rules, only one pension — the larger of the two — is available to Weatherley.

"I had this pension awarded twice, and twice removed, and I thought it was wrong the first time, and I didn't protest it at that time," said Weatherley, who lives in Cambridge-Narrows.

"But this time I thought it was wrong, and there was some fine print at the bottom of the letter that said 'If you don't agree with this you can do this and ask some questions,' and so I did.'

After 6½  years of paying lawyers and fighting, she is now claiming victory. 

Tribunal finds rule unjustified

In a January ruling, the Social Security Tribunal of Canada said the Canada Pension Plan infringed on Weatherley's equality rights and said its decision was "not justified in a free and democratic society."

"I was absolutely blown away," Weatherley said. "And I thought that they had been very fair. And I really appreciated it." 

The original rule affecting Weatherley was based on CPP's view in the 1970s that "when a woman remarried she no longer needed the survivor's benefit because she had a new man to take care of her," said Rosella Melanson, who was called as an expert witness in the January hearing because of her experience as executive director of New Brunswick Advisory council on the Status of Women.

CPP's decision was "sexist" and based "on a principle that would not survive present day scrutiny," Melanson said.

Mostly women benefit

CPP argued that its decision denying Weatherley two pensions wasn't sexist because the rules say the survivor receives the larger of the two pensions. The overwhelming majority of people who benefit from this are women, the plan lawyers said.

Weatherley, 88, said that despite putting a "considerable amount" of her own time and resources to protest against the rules, she is now more pleased that the benefits might become accessible to other survivors in similar positions.

The result was still a surprise, however.

"My expectations were that I hoped we'd be listened too, and I hoped we'd be a matter of record, and it would help," said Weatherley. "Because I was sure somebody else would take this up at some point."  

The Crown has 90 days to file an appeal to the tribunal.

About the Author

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.