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Cheyanne Thomas and Fabienne Spiess are former program co-ordinators of the Awenen Niin Identification Program at the Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic, a not-for-profit organization that provides legal advice around poverty law issues.

A birth certificate is an essential piece of personal identification that is required to access health care, housing, income, education and many other vital services. This may seem obvious to you, but the importance of a birth certificate in places such as Northern Ontario can’t be overstated.

We know this because we’ve assisted low-income individuals with acquiring ID and have witnessed firsthand the devastating effects that not having an ID has on individuals. They’re unable to access basic income supports, apply for housing or even go to a food bank.

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One elderly individual our office is working with – born in the bush shortly after the Second World War and whose birth was never registered – is a case in point. Prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the institution of security-driven regulations around personal ID, this individual was able to acquire a social-insurance number and health card using their baptismal records. However, that is no longer a possibility. And when their health card expired, they were unable to renew it and have been denied health services despite escalating health problems.

At Kinna-aweya, we’ve seen ID application fees range from $25 to $45. This might seem like a nominal amount, but for many in Northern Ontario – where Indigenous people do not have the same access to basic services as non-Indigenous people, and Indigenous communities face disproportionately higher rates of poverty – it is unaffordable. The fee competes with more pressing needs such as food, medication and housing. A single person living on the Ontario Works financial-assistance program receives $343 a month for basic needs, which must cover everything for the month: food, clothing, hygiene items, medication, transportation.

This issue is particularly problematic in Northern Ontario. Research consistently finds that rural and remote communities already face disproportionately less access to these vital services and programs. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health recently published an article about how lack of personal ID disproportionately affects Indigenous peoples in Northern Ontario, and is “rooted in both the geography of the region but also in historical and contemporary settler colonial policies.” The people who most need personal ID also face the greatest barriers to obtaining it.

A program provided by the Office of the Registrar General can waive the fees of a birth certificate. But with limited public information about it, few organizations in Ontario have access to the program, or even know how to apply. Fewer than 20 organizations have qualified; the Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic in Thunder Bay is the only such group north of Ottawa.

Increasing the number of organizations that can use the fee-waiver program would be hugely helpful. But the main program criteria – that clients must be homeless or at immediate risk of homelessness – is illogical. Access to housing is not a good indicator of someone’s need for personal ID, nor of their ability to pay the required fees.

Even individuals with stable housing struggle to obtain a birth certificate. Many of them have to use large portions of their income or basic-needs allowance to cover the cost of housing and food. In Indigenous communities, housing issues are more complex, and many individuals live in homes that are overcrowded and in need of serious repairs.

In the Ontario Vital Statistics Act, the Registrar General has the discretion to set and collect fees and provide for the waiver of payment of a birth certificate. A private member’s bill, introduced in 2018 by then-MPP Sophie Kiwala, proposed that the Office of the Registrar General exercise its discretion and completely waive payment of fees for birth certificates for individuals unable to pay. This would have the potential to drastically reduce the barriers people are facing in accessing ID.

The bill passed its second reading before the provincial election, but now languishes, waiting for another politician to pick up the torch.

Lack of access to birth certificates is a growing crisis in Northern Ontario that affects the most marginalized individuals in our communities. And while research is just beginning on the scope of the issue and identifying policy solutions, the issue gets acknowledged far too rarely. But for a region tangled up in deep, complicated, systemic problems, this looks to be one with an easy solution, at least in the short term: The fee-waiver program should be expanded to include all Ontarians who are low income or facing financial hardship.

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