Nova Scotia

Human rights commission ordered to reconsider special diet case

A judge has ordered the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to reconsider a discrimination complaint five social assistance recipients filed over the province's failure to increase a special diet allowance since 1996.

Justice James Chipman called commission's decision to dismiss the complaint unreasonable

Roxanne Barton took the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to court after it dismissed her discrimination claim, but the commission has ruled against her and four other women a second time. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

A judge has ordered the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to reconsider a discrimination complaint five social assistance recipients filed over the province's failure to increase a special diet allowance since 1996.

The special diet allowance is aimed at people who have chronic medical problems and require particular foods. During the same 20-year period, the province has increased the basic food allowance for people on income assistance 11 times.

Roxanne Barton, Deborah Wright, Bonnie Barrett, Pamela Chandler, Michele Cox and the North End Community Health Centre took the case to court in December.

In a decision released Wednesday, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice James Chipman called the commission's decision to dismiss the complaint unreasonable.

"I'm very happy again that the [Nova Scotia] Supreme Court has not accepted that outrageous decision and our case has been returned to the commission for a second chance at providing us with a hearing," Barton said Wednesday.

"Anybody on a regular diet plan through social services is really, really struggling just to eat. But people with special-needs diets, it's even more difficult because those items are more expensive every year."

$96 special diet allowance

Barton, who lives in Halifax, receives $837 a month as income assistance. That includes a $96 special diet allowance for her chronic pancreatitis, pre-diabetes and a gastro-intestinal disorder. She also receives about $125 from the Canada Pension Plan.

Once she pays her rent, utilities and other expenses, she said she's left with about $100 a month for groceries.

In June 2016, the commission ruled the complaint against the Department of Community Services should not be referred to a board of inquiry because it did not believe an investigation would turn up any evidence of discrimination. The complaint was filed in August 2015.

Melanie MacNaughton, one of the commission's human rights officers, had recommended the complaint be referred to a board of inquiry to determine whether discrimination occurred based on disability.

10,000 Nova Scotians get allowance

In his ruling, Chipman set aside the dismissal and referred the case back to the commission to be dealt with in "accordance with the principles of fairness and transparency." He said there should not be a new investigation.

"The judge ruled that the commission's reasons for dismissing the complaint were unreasonable and did not make sense," said Vince Calderhead, the lawyer who represents the women.

"The court has said that this complaint needs to considered afresh, anew by the human rights commission and in the course of doing do it needs to be fair and open about that process. It effectively gives the complainants another chance and keeps the complaint alive."

Human rights commissioners will decide whether the case should be referred to a board of inquiry when they meet Feb. 22-23 in Halifax. 

About 10,000 Nova Scotians receive assistance to pay for their special diets. The Department of Community Services spends about $9 million per year on funding for special diets. 

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca