Disability rights advocates are hailing a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada dismissing the Nova Scotia government’s appeal of a lower court ruling on housing discrimination.
As is customary, the country’s top court did not give reasons for its decision announced Thursday. The court also awarded unspecific costs to the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia, which launched the original case.
The provincial government had appealed a ruling last October by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal stating the province’s failure to offer “meaningful” access to housing services for people with disabilities amounted to a violation of their basic rights.
Claire McNeil, a lawyer for the disability rights coalition, said the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the province’s appeal sends a clear message to the government.
“They rendered their decision in a very quick manner and they’ve ordered costs against the province,” McNeil said. “I think that should be a clear signal to the premier that this is something that needs to be addressed by his government.”
A day after the Oct. 6 Court of Appeal ruling, Premier Tim Houston pledged to work with the disabilities community and said he didn’t believe citizens should have to take the government to court to make it “do the right thing.”
However, the province announced in December it would appeal, saying the judgment raised several questions, including around the impact on social programs.
McNeil has argued the mistreatment of people with disabilities includes unnecessary institutionalization, lengthy wait times for services, and forced removal to remote areas of the province, far from family and friends.
Vicky Levack, a member of the coalition’s executive, said her group was “pleased and relieved” by the Supreme Court’s dismissal.
“It was a delay tactic and it didn’t work,” Levack said of the provincial government’s appeal to the top court. “If something is discriminatory you stop doing it. I’m sorry but it really is that simple.”
Levack said it’s time for Houston to act on his previous statements.
“He says he cares about people, so now prove it,” she said. “Sit down with us and find a solution to this decades-long injustice.” A good starting point, she added, would be to look for ways to extend program support to more than 500 people with disabilities who don’t have access to services.
Meanwhile, McNeil says the province is currently arguing before the Nova Scotia human rights board of inquiry in separate legal proceedings that it shouldn’t have to change its model of delivering housing services and other support for people with disabilities.
“We’re really hoping that this is going to be a turning point, though, for the province now that it’s heard from the Supreme Court of Canada,” she said.
Houston told reporters Thursday his government will respect the Supreme Court ruling.
“This was never about our commitment to supporting Nova Scotians with disabilities, that commitment is unwavering,” Houston said.
The premier said his initial concern over the lower court ruling involved the analogy that finding housing for someone is “similar to writing a social assistance cheque.”
“Those things are not the same, so I still have that concern on the broader ramifications,” he said, adding that it’s his hope the board of inquiry process will answer some of those questions.
“There are lots of wait-lists in this province for a lot of different issues,” he said. “In no way does it mean that the government is not anxious to provide those services, but it just means that sometimes it takes time.”
However, NDP Leader Gary Burrill was blunt when he was asked what the government should do next.
“The government should call off their dogs,” Burrill said. “The Supreme Court has said to them `you are not in the right’ so at this stage of the game, the government’s legal effort at the board of inquiry level should be withdrawn and shut down.”
The original human rights case was launched by three people with intellectual disabilities who spent years confined in a Dartmouth, N.S., psychiatric hospital despite medical opinions stating they could be housed in the community.
The human rights board decided the individual rights of Joey Delaney, the late Beth MacLean and the late Sheila Livingstone were violated, but it also ruled against the coalition’s separate claim that the system was discriminating more widely against people with disabilities.
The coalition appealed the systemic discrimination ruling by the board and won before the province’s Court of Appeal.
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