12/12/2013 02:34 EST | Updated 02/11/2014 05:59 EST

Nova Scotia minister says social assistance system is 'paternalistic'

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's community services minister says she's planning to transform the way social assistance is handed out, saying the existing system is "paternalistic" and does not address the root causes of poverty.

Joanne Bernard said Thursday she has started a department-wide evaluation of all programs, which includes reviewing the guidelines that tell income assistance recipients how much they should spend on certain items, including shelter, electricity, child care and bus passes.

"When somebody tells you to the dime what you can spend that on, that's just a very paternalistic way to live," she said in an interview.

"It's a culture that I don't think is needed. People on income assistance should have the right to choose what they do with their monthly cheque from the department."

Bernard said she has an intimate understanding of the system, having lived on social assistance for nine years in the 1990s. As a single mother, she says she relied on the system when she went back to school, where she earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in political science.

"As someone who has lived in poverty ... I'm well aware of the challenges that low-income Nova Scotians face," she said outside the legislature.

"I'm a perfect example of what can be done when people take advantage of the government supports that are there and they move out of the system ... I have four years (in government). I'm hitting the ground running. I'm looking at every program."

She said Nova Scotia's social assistance rates are among the lowest in Canada. However, she said improving the system doesn't necessarily mean raising rates.

"Is it ever enough? Probably not. It's a difficult situation."

As well, she said she wants her department to stop its practice of requiring those with special needs to prove on an annual basis that they qualify for a special needs allotment. Bernard said she knows a woman with multiple sclerosis who is required to get a doctor's note every year to show she will never walk again.

"It's dehumanizing," Bernard said.

"I have the opportunity now to remove some barriers. ... It's a real transformation in the way that we've done business. The department is ready for this."

Before she ran for public office, Bernard worked for eight years as a Halifax-area housing advocate in north end of Dartmouth.

As the executive director of Alice Housing, Bernard also established an internationally recognized program for child witnesses of violence.