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Kimberly Rogers died a miserable, lonely death. We will know in the next few weeks whether she also died in vain.

Ms. Rogers was 40 years old and eight months pregnant when her body was found in her second-floor walkup in Sudbury during a record-setting heat wave in August, 2001.

Three months earlier, she had pleaded guilty to welfare fraud for continuing to collect benefits while receiving student loans.

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As part of her sentence, she had been forbidden to leave what one supporter called her "hovel" except for a three-hour period each week, and she had been cut off the welfare rolls.

In death, Ms. Rogers was portrayed as a victim of the Mike Harris government, which had expertly exploited the feeling among many voters that welfare recipients had it soft.

The government's critics said she had been treated little better than a caged animal.

More than a year later, the feelings are still raw. Last August, for example, the National Post blared triumphantly that "the state did not kill Kimberly Rogers" when it reported that she had died of an overdose of an antidepressant drug and not heat prostration.

Coroner David Eden will step into the middle of the controversy today when he opens an inquest into Ms. Rogers' death. The inquiry, which is expected to last five weeks and hear from at least 35 witnesses, will range widely. It will probe not only the cause of the death but also the role the justice system played in it. It will also assess how she fared under a social- assistance system that did not give her enough money to live on.

Ms. Rogers drew $520 in monthly benefits -- the maximum entitlement for a single person -- during the time from 1996 to 2000 when she attended Cambrian College in Sudbury.

She paid $450 a month in rent, which left her $70 for other needs.

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Her problem was that student loans are meant to cover living costs as well as tuition and books. In the fall of 1999, welfare officials discovered what they concluded was double-dipping and declared she had received an overpayment of $13,486.

Her benefits were docked 10 per cent each month to collect the overpayment, leaving her just $18 a month after rent. In April, 2001, now a Cambrian graduate but still unemployed, she pleaded guilty to fraud. She was sentenced to six months' house arrest and was automatically cut off from benefits for three months.

There are many people who are eager to show that this is not just ancient history and that the sins of the Harris era are still being perpetuated by the government of Premier Ernie Eves.

"It's still a Conservative government, and the new Premier doesn't represent a sea change," said Jacquie Chic, a lawyer for the Income Security Advocacy Centre, which is representing a coalition of groups granted standing at the inquest.

Indeed, Mr. Eves has been keen to present himself as a "fiscal conservative with a social conscience," but there is scant evidence to judge what he means by that.

I raised this in an interview last June. Twice, I asked whether he had plans to raise welfare benefits or the minimum wage, both of which were frozen throughout the Harris years. He was silent both times.

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The inquest will be watched closely at Queen's Park. Brenda Elliott, the Minister of Community, Family and Children's Services, says it would be inappropriate for her to comment. But when she was asked if she felt that the current level of welfare benefits is on trial, she gave a hint that the Tories' get-tough attitude hasn't waned.

Ontario is sticking to its zero-tolerance policy on welfare fraud, she said.

"The principle holds true that citizens should not defraud other citizens of assets in the welfare system," Ms. Elliott said.

Government figures for the year 2000-01 show that just 430 of the estimated 500,000 people receiving social assistance were convicted of cheating the system. In another 17,800 cases, payments were reduced or stopped entirely after a review of eligibility.

Ms. Rogers got $13,000 more than she was entitled to. Did she deserve to die for this?

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