Thunder Bay

Legal clinic aims to help people who don't officially exist

The government needs to do more to help people who are falling through the social safety net because they don't have personal identification, according to a clinic that specializes in poverty law in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Figuring out who you are in the eyes of government proves difficult for many

The Kinne-Aweya Legal Clinic in Thunder Bay has helped about 800 people apply for personal identification since 2012, says ID services coordinator Cheyanne DeGagne. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The government needs to do more to help people who are falling through the social safety net because they don't have personal identification, according to a clinic that specializes in poverty law in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic set up an ID bank in 2015 to provide vulnerable people with a safe place to store the personal documents but soon found a bigger problem was people who didn't have any identification to store, according to ID services coordinator Cheyanne DeGagne.

Since 2012, the clinic has helped about 800 people work through the cumbersome forms to receive birth certificates — the starting point for nearly all of the government's poverty reduction services.

"Clients will tell us that they've applied 4 or 5 times in the last year to get their ID and they still haven't been able to get it and in each of those cases, they've paid the fee and they're really frustrated," DeGagne told CBC in an interview on Tuesday.

Applying for a replacement birth certificate costs $35 in Ontario. Obtaining the documents needed for the application may cost even more.

Fee reduction

It's paperwork that often gets lost when people became estranged from their families through the child welfare system or marriage breakdown, DeGagne said.

"One of the things we'd like to see changed is a fee reduction for people who might be on social assistance because...that $35 dollars is a huge part of the monthly budget," she said.

People with brain injuries or limited literacy skills often struggle to fill out the online forms and sometimes the application is rejected for reasons that aren't clear to the applicant, DeGagne said.

For example, she said, a person may have written down the name they called their mother as a child. The form will come back requesting "additional information" without clarifying that a mother's maiden name is required.

The government should be providing specialized case workers to help people work through government forms — a process DeGagne said said she's seen take up to three years in some cases.

'It makes them feel invisible'

"Not everybody has the capacity to apply on their own and we would like to see where the ORG (Office of the Registrar General)  was doing that extra work to help those clients, as opposed to the burden being felt by social service agencies," she said.

Having one's application for identification constantly rejected can have a demoralizing impact on people, DeGagne said.

"They do get emotional because it often reminds them of the family they don't have a relationship with or the fact that it feels like the government doesn't feel like they exist or they don't think the person is a real person," she said. "It makes them feel invisible, that they're not acknowledged as a full human being."

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