Multiple groups calling on federal government to increase disability benefits

By Amarachi Amadike
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Beach Metro Community News

When the Parliamentary Budget Officer recently released three hypothetical scenarios of the Canada Disability Benefit’s (CDB) costs, advocates of Canada’s disabled community were relieved to hear figures ranging from $2.1 billion to $20.5 billion beginning in 2025.

However, upon the federal government’s tabling of this year’s budget on April 16 much of that excitement quickly evaporated, turning instead to collective disappointment.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s budget allocated $6.1 billion over the first five years, and $1.4 billion annually afterwards, to the CBD Program. This, according to the federal government, is “including costs to deliver the benefit” to 600,000 people.

Broken down, these figures add up to each recipient receiving $2,400 a year ($200 a month). Those numbers have led advocates, including Don Valley Community Legal Services (DVCLS) Staff Lawyer and Income Maintenance Team Lead Christine Da Costa Antunes, to criticize the government for failing their most vulnerable population.

“I’m sure it does make a bit of a difference,” she said of the $200. “But there was talk of there being more money in this program and (this amount) still keeps these people well below the poetry line.”

Antunes also highlighted that those who are accepted for the program’s benefits won’t receive funds until July 2025. Furthermore, the benefits are being divided among 600,000 people which some organizations are reporting is well below the current demand.

“I don’t know how they came up with 600,000,” said Antunes. “One of the figures I got is that over 900,000 working age Canadians have disabilities.”

According to Disability Without Poverty, this number could be closer to 1.5 million people with 16.5 per cent of Canada’s disabled population living in poverty.

This high demand has resulted in most requests for DVCLS’s Income Maintenance Team’s services coming from individuals attempting to transfer from financial assistance programs such as Ontario Works to Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) due to thinly stretched income.

“When people are on Ontario Works, they’re expected to be looking for employment,” said Antunes. “But a lot of people can’t look for work or can’t often find work because of medical and socio-economic conditions. So there is an attraction to try to apply for Ontario Disability Benefits.”

An Ontario resident who successfully applies for ODSP can receive a maximum of $1,308 per month for basic needs and for shelter – the shelter portion on its own having a $556 limit, a far cry from the amount needed to secure a decent living situation in most municipalities.

“You can imagine how hard it is to live on that amount,” said Antunes. “Sure, people are happy when they get on ODSP but it still doesn’t lift them out of poverty.”

As though this figure wasn’t bad enough, those who are stuck on Ontario Works (sometimes without employment) are forced to make a living with a maximum of $733 for both their basic needs as well as shelter.

“There are people who are moving into precarious living situations, women who are forced into shared accommodations in situations that they shouldn’t be involved in,” said Antunes.

This has led to increased homelessness and food bank usage as can be witnessed by the increasing number of Ontario food banks with empty shelves.

According to the Second Harvest’s annual Hungry for Change’ report, 36 per cent of non-profit food programs across Canada are forced to turn people away, a statistic that marks a grim future as the nation anticipates an 18 pe rcent increase in food bank demand.

Although many critics are quick to disregard the homeless population as “lazy”, Antunes believes that it is important to acknowledge that the homeless population is filled with people who have been forced to the streets due to insufficient assistance from the provincial and federal governments.

With the current level of government assistance for Canada’s disabled not coming anywhere near sufficient, coupled with legislation which prohibits simultaneously participating in multiple assistance programs, many of Ontario’s disabled, along with advocates, have long called for the Canada Disability Benefit as a way to supplement their low income, bringing their finances to “the poverty line at minimum.”

“You are able to have other sources of income,” said Antunes. “But most of those sources of income are deducted, sometimes dollar for dollar.”

For example, an individual on ODSP can also apply for Canada Pension Plan (CPP) disability benefits. However, if accepted for CPP disability, whatever amount granted is deducted from ODSP, leaving no added benefit to one’s financial situation.

“Not only is there no added benefit, you end up in a worse situation because you now have to deal with two completely different systems,” said Antunes.

She said this dilemma has forced many who seek assistance from Don Valley Community Legal Services to hide income or work “under the table” in an attempt to make their finances stretch through the entirety of each month.

“But I don’t think [CDB] is heading in that direction. I think it will be given and not deducted so that is certainly better,” she said.

Don Valley Community Legal Services has attempted to reach out to political leaders in hopes that they will use their voices to shed light on the matter. So far, not much has come from their attempts.

“It just seems like it isn’t much of a priority or (they’re not) fully understanding what is happening with people living in these situations and how desperate it really is,” said Antunes.

According to DVCLS Community Development Worker Laura Antonen, they have sent letters “to the four MPs with full ridings in our catchment area” – Liberals Julie Dabrusin (Toronto-Danforth), Rob Oliphant (Don Valley West) , Michael Coteau (Don Valley East), and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Beaches-East York).

Erskine-Smith, who was once co-chair of the all-party anti-poverty caucus, has called for improved efforts from his government in order to bring CDB contributions on par with Canada’s current economic situation.

Although he praises the CDB for being “one of the biggest new individual spending lines in the entire budget” in his 2024 budget review, he highlighted its flaws, admitting that it “obviously falls short of a transformational policy”.

However, Erskine-Smith called for more action not just from his fellow Liberals at the federal level, but from provincial governments who he believes have equally failed in providing adequate support for their most vulnerable residents.

“Lifting people with disabilities out of poverty should be a top priority for all governments, especially provincial governments that have primary responsibility for a strong social safety net,” said Erskine-Smith in an email statement to Beach Metro Community News.

With the federal government taking what has often been described as a “first step” to providing sufficient support for the disabled community, advocates are now hoping to see improved efforts in the near future.

Although money doesn’t take away one’s disability, Antunes is reminding all levels of government that “it certainly makes living with a disability a little bit easier.”

“If you can afford pain medication or certain treatments that might not be covered, that will make your life that much better,” she said.

Those requiring legal help in acquiring financial assistance due to a disability can contact Don Valley Community Legal Services at during their business hours from Monday to Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.