04/10/2013 12:55 EDT | Updated 06/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Quebec makes minor tweaks to controversial welfare changes

Quebec is making a few minor changes to its looming and controversial welfare reforms.

Labour Minister Agnes Maltais has been under fire for implementing cuts affecting families with young children, some people over 55, and people accessing drug and alcohol treatment.

Under current rules, welfare recipients who are older than 55-years-old and couples with children under the age of five are entitled to an additional $129 each month.

The Quebec government had announced that, starting June 1, those funds will be dramatically reformed.

The age of eligibility will be pushed to 58 from 55 and qualifying families and would need to register with Emploi Quebec for job-finding activities to receive any additional money.

In addition to those changes, anyone receiving social assistance and undergoing treatment in an addiction rehabilitation centre will be evaluated after 183 days to determine if they're able to return to the job market.

The changes aren't retroactive and will only affect new applicants.

Delayed until September

Maltais now says the new rules for families won't be implemented until September and additional measures will be brought in to help get anyone over 55 back to work.

At a news conference Tuesday, Maltais indicated there would be a significant and progressive bonus to provide further assistance to 85,000 of the poorest Quebecers. She did not provide further details.

She said more information on that bonus would be available in "a few short weeks."

The changes have been met with criticism from the opposition in the national assembly and anti-poverty groups, who have staged demonstrations to oppose the changes.

"The minister is trying to save face with this release today announcing a few changes to the cuts," Québec solidaire MNA and party co-spokesperson Françoise David said yesterday.

"But essentially, she's confirming that's she staying on the same track. She continues to ignore the opinions that are popping up everywhere that these cuts will have a negative impact on people."

'I think it's just crumbs'

Margaret van Nooten, a social rights worker with the group Project Genesis, said she already sees people struggling and failing to pay their bills on the $600 dollars a month they're afforded on social assistance.

Van Nooten said simply delaying a cut and adding other minor amendments is a slap in the face.

"After the groundswell of outrage that's happened, I just think it is crumbs," she said.

"Increasing the rates would be something that would actually help remove people from the terrible, terrible situation they're in...[This] is just worsening their situation. It's like a slap in the face to the people that are the most vulnerable."

Van Nooten says Maltais didn't do any consultation with anti-poverty groups before drafting the reforms and is now trying to smooth it over with minor changes.

Maltais has already acknowledged she made a mistake when she failed to publicly announce proposed changes to the welfare system.

In an interview with the Canadian Press in March, Maltais admitted she dropped the ball by neglecting to take the time to explain the changes to social assistance before leaving to meet with her federal counterpart Diane Finley in Ottawa.

The changes were not publicly announced by the Parti Québécois government; rather, they were quietly mentioned in the Gazette Officielle, a provincial government publication.

Maltais explained Tuesday that she "didn't have time," to speak with affected groups before the changes were drafted.

"The important thing is where we land," she said.