The Current

N.S. gov't appeal in disabled rights case shows 'they don't view us as people,' advocate says

Two months after a Court of Appeal decision found evidence of systemic discrimination of three individuals with disabilities, the N.S. government says it will appeal the decision.

Provincial government says it is appealing decision to resolve outstanding questions

Vicky Levack felt vindicated when Nova Scotia's top court confirmed people living with disabilities had faced discrimination in the province, but the provincial government is now appealing that decision. (Vicky Levack)

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When Nova Scotia's top court ruled the province discriminated against people with disabilities — by housing them in institutions like nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals — Vicky Levack felt relief and hope for the future.

Levack, 31, has cerebral palsy. She has lived in Arborstone Enhanced Care, a Halifax nursing home, for a decade.

"I thought I was going to die here and never have a life outside of these walls; never get married, never have children, and I really mourned that," Levack told The Current. "And now here's my chance."

The Oct. 6 ruling found systemic discrimination in how the provincial government placed Nova Scotians with disabilities in institutions, even though they could have lived in the community with support. 

Levack believed that decision could lead to improved living conditions for people in her community — but last week, the province announced it intends to appeal.

Karla MacFarlane is the Nova Scotia Minister of Community Services. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

On Dec. 2, Community Services Minister Karla MacFarlane said the ruling raises questions that the Supreme Court of Canada could help resolve, including how other social programs could be affected. 

"Government programs are guided by policies with allocated budgets," she said in a statement after the appeal was announced. "This decision also places a legal requirement on the Disability Support Program and we need to better understand that requirement."

"For these reasons, the province has made the decision to appeal," the statement said.

The Current asked MacFarlane for an interview, but she declined. In an emailed statement, she said the provincial government is "not appealing the findings of individual discrimination, nor are we appealing the individual damages awarded." 

But Levack, who's a member of the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia, one of the complainants in the discrimination case, feels let down by the provincial government's decision.

"What this case taught me is … that they don't view us as people, as worthy of the same things they take for granted everyday," she said.

'Blindsided' by the decision

In March 2019, a human rights board of inquiry found that the Nova Scotia government had discriminated against Beth MacLean, Sheila Livingstone and Joey Delaney. 

Each spent years in a locked unit of the Nova Scotia Hospital, beyond the time they were deemed ready to live elsewhere. The provincial government was found to have discriminated against providing services like housing to them on "account of mental and physical disability.

But it wasn't until the Oct. 6 decision by the Court of Appeal that evidence of systemic discrimination was acknowledged.

Lawyer Claire McNeil, who's a part of the Disability Rights Coalition that launched the appeal, said MacLean, Livingstone and Delaney were emblematic "of a widespread, decades-long problem that exists here in Nova Scotia."

"They were not isolated examples, but really just demonstrated the operation of the systemic problem … that result[s] in the unnecessary hospitalization and institutionalisation of hundreds and hundreds of people with disabilities," she told The Current.

Just because I have a disability, that's not my fault. I didn't ask for this, I did nothing to cause this.-Vicky Levack

A day after the ruling, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said his government heard the court's message "loud and clear." He added that he didn't believe citizens should have to take the government to court to make them "do the right thing."

That's why McNeil felt "blindsided" by the provincial government's move to appeal the court decision.

"But in a way, we shouldn't have been surprised," she said. "This province has used every legal angle they can find to delay and prolong this legal process, during which two of the individual complainants [Livingstone and MacLean] … have died."

The Current asked Houston for an interview, but he declined.

'They feel like throwaway people'

Levack said she would not wish the experience of living in a nursing home on even her worst enemy. 

"There are a lot of rules," she said. "If you live in your own home, you make the rules and you're not subject to the will of others. And here I am, subject to the will of others."

Levack described multiple negative experiences, including name-calling "for standing up for my rights and the rights of others," curfews, and three separate assaults by a former roommate with a cognitive disability. 

Levack, left, will be moving into a new condo in the near future as part of a community housing pilot project. But she said she 'won't shut up' until other people with disabilities have similar access to housing. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

She's heard similar experiences from other people with disabilities, in similar situations.

"They call me and they say they feel like throwaway people that no one cares about," she said. "They feel like a body in a bed and not a human being."

"It's disgusting and it makes me angry and sad."

Moving forward

Levack won't be in the nursing home for too much longer, though. Thanks to a community housing pilot project, she will be moving into a condo in the near future.

The project is a partnership between the departments of Community Services and Health.

"I'm very happy that I get to move out, but if they think by giving me this home I'm going to shut up, they're dead wrong," she said. "I will not shut up until every single human being has that access."

WATCH: How people with developmental disabilities are changing the health-care system 

'I'm a human being. I'm not my illness'

3 years ago
Duration 1:54
Dr. Brian Goldman met three patient advisers with developmental disabilities and asked them for advice

The Supreme Court must now decide whether to hear the provincial government's appeal. That decision is expected in the coming months.

McNeil said it's discouraging because the longer legal proceedings are delayed, the bigger the problem will become.

"But that's not a reason not to tackle it now, and we're really hopeful that at some point soon that the government will address this issue and start to work on a solution," she said.

Levack will be with them all the way. 

"Just because I have a disability, that's not my fault," she said. "I didn't ask for this, I did nothing to cause this." 

"And even if I did, it doesn't make me any less worthy of being part of my community."


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Mary-Catherine MacIntosh.

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