British Columbia's disabled community is reacting with anger over a decision in this week's provincial budget to cancel relatively inexpensive yearly transit passes and replace them with more expensive monthly passes.
Advocacy groups also say the situation is so complicated that the lack of clarity is making things worse as members of the community struggle to make sense of what the government has done.
The B.C. government announced a $77 monthly increase in benefits for people with disabilities – the first such increase in about a decade – effective Sept. 1 of this year.
However, the province has also eliminated a $45-a-year B.C. Bus Pass and replaced it with a pass that costs $52 a month. There's also an annual $45 administration fee. Advocates say a person with a disability who uses a bus pass will be left with what amounts to a $25 monthly increase in their benefits.
Faith Bodnar, executive director of the advocacy group Inclusion BC, said transit costs for an economically vulnerable group have effectively increased from $3.75 a month, under the yearly bus pass, to $52 a month with the new pass – a 1,300-per-cent increase in the price of transit.
About 100,000 people in British Columbia receive disability benefits, which are set at a maximum of $906.42 a month per person.
"What they gave on the one hand, they took almost all of it back with the other," Ms. Bodnar said.
"It's callous and it's mean-spirited – and if you're going to give an increase, give an increase. Separate the transportation subsidies out of the PWD increase. Give everybody that $77 and go sort out a more equitable and fair, across-the-board transit subsidy approach."
The issue spurred debate during Thursday's question period in the B.C. Legislature.
"Why is [Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell] playing a shell game with the province's most vulnerable citizens and their well-being?" asked New Democrat MLA Michelle Mungall.
Ms. Stilwell said that 40,000 B.C. residents in smaller communities without transit were not eligible for the bus pass, but the new approach will provide everyone receiving benefits with more money. "The bus pass program will still be eligible for those people who choose to have it."
Speaking to reporters, Ms. Stilwell said the new policy will allow more choice for people with disabilities and equalize the payments individuals receive.
In the budget speech, Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the increase in assistance payments would cost $170-million over three years.
He said the government was acting to revise a system of transportation subsidies that benefit only some people. "This won't eliminate the challenges those living with disabilities face, and it won't suddenly make life easier, but we hope it will help make life a little less hard," he said.
Jane Dyson, executive director of Disability Alliance BC, said she fears some bus pass recipients may become socially isolated because they'll decide transit is something they can't afford. "I do think that people may make that choice not to get the bus pass."
Given the opportunity, she said she would ask Mr. de Jong to seriously reconsider the change in the rules around transportation subsidies.
"Being able to access transportation and to get out into your community and access health appointments, schools and all the things that give people with disabilities dignity, independence and hope is so important, and we see this as a step back," she said.
Ms. Dyson said her organization was still trying to figure out what steps to take.
"I am certainly going to be trying to talk to [Ms. Stilwell] about it to express our concerns," she said. "To be honest, it's not always easy to know what to do. It's hard to get government to change their minds, especially when it has been announced like this."