Nova Scotia

Court scolds Nova Scotia government for treatment of family on assistance

Nova Scotia’s highest court has rebuked the provincial Community Services Department for suspending welfare payments to a young family for six weeks.

Ruling says government was wrong to deny 'innocent people, living in poverty, the funds they need'

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has ruled the wife and children of Brenton Sparks, shown here in June 2016, were wrongly cut off their income assistance by the provincial Department of Community Services. Sparks said his income assistance might have been in question but his family should not have been penalized. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Nova Scotia's highest court has rebuked the provincial Community Services Department for suspending welfare payments to a young family for six weeks.

The issue comes down to whether the "sins" of the father should be visited on his wife and young children.

In 2015, Brenton Sparks, his wife Rosemary and their three daughters were receiving income assistance in the form of a monthly cheque which totalled slightly more than $1,000.

As a condition of receiving the money, Brenton Sparks was expected to look for work. In July 2015, a caseworker contacted Breton Sparks, asking him to meet with an employment counsellor. Sparks didn't attend the meeting and the department decided to suspend the family's entire assistance cheque.

Sparks appealed the decision to an adjudicator and lost. He appealed that decision to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and lost again. But in a ruling released Wednesday, the Court of Appeal sided with Sparks against the department.

Punishing those most vulnerable

"Simply put, denying innocent people, living in poverty, the funds they need for financial survival cannot be sustained by any reasonable interpretation of the governing legislation," Chief Justice Michael MacDonald wrote for the three-judge appeal panel.

During the appeal process, Sparks acknowledged that he could be penalized. But he argued that the penalty should not apply to his wife and daughters. Deducting his assistance would have cost the family $255 a month.

"[T]his punishment (and it is nothing short of punishment) visits those who are most vulnerable: those living in poverty," Justice MacDonald wrote.

"Nor can it be reasonably denied that these allowances represent the bare minimum needed to survive financially."

'Actions outside of their control'

Claire McNeil of Dalhousie Legal Aid represented Brenton's wife Rosemary Sparks, who was an intervenor in her husband's appeal.

"There's many, many people who've had their assistance taken away as a result of actions outside of their control," McNeil said. The legislation applied to the Sparks' case has been in effect for 17 years, she said.

"And many of them have been children. And if we're talking numbers, over the course of 17 years, that would be in the thousands."

She said there are similar regulations which could also penalize families in the same way.

"I think it is an opportune time for the Department of Community Services to take a second look at some of those provisions and to apply the reasoning of the Court of Appeal in changing the way they treat children and poor people in this province," McNeil said.

Difficult ordeal

Rosemary Sparks said it was a tough fight.

"Obviously financially it was difficult on us because we do have three children," she said.

"It was rough trying to get by, obviously with our rent and our heat, our power."

It was a difficult ordeal, but she said she's glad they stuck with it.

"You just feel proud of yourself. You feel happy and you feel finally when justice happens for you because there's so much unjust going on."

Sparks said she and her family have turned a corner in their lives and are much better off now than when this legal battle started.


  • A previous version of the story said welfare payments to the family were suspended for six months. In fact, it was six weeks.
    Nov 09, 2017 2:30 PM AT


Blair Rhodes


Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 40 years, the last 31 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety. He can be reached at