07/30/2019 12:25 EDT | Updated 07/31/2019 10:39 EDT

'There's No Empathy': Protests Flash Across Ontario Against Legal Aid Cuts

Dozens of protests were held over budget cuts that lawyers say will be devastating for low-income people.

Sudbury Community Legal Clinic
Monique Woolnough, executive director of the Sudbury Community Legal Clinic, poses for a photo with board member and client Kevin Greer.

Kevin Greer says there’s no way he’ll be able to pay back the more than $10,000 the Ontario government says he owes.

The 61-year-old has lived on social assistance since he developed severe osteoarthritis in his ankles, knees and shoulders and had to shut down his solar energy business. Greer lives on the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, which is about 20 km from Sudbury, Ont., in a house he built himself with no potable water and no computer. 

The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the provincial program that provides income to Ontarians who can’t work because of a disability, says he has to pay back thousands of dollars because they made an error and sent him too much money. For two years, he’s been trying to appeal the decision with the help of free legal advice from the Sudbury Community Legal Clinic. 

“That weighs on my shoulders, on my mind, having that hang over my head ... If they take money from me, that’ll only put me in a worse position,” he told HuffPost Canada.

“When you’re in that position and you’re fighting to survive, your last worry should be that you owe money to the government for a government mistake.”

I probably would have been like everybody else. You owe money to the government and you’re going to pay until the day you die.Kevin Greer

Greer now sits on the legal clinic’s community board and he says he wouldn’t have appealed the decision if it wasn’t for its help. In that case, he would’ve been on the hook for $10,000 he doesn’t have. 

“I probably would have been like everybody else. You owe money to the government and you’re going to pay until the day you die,” he said.

Province-wide protests on Tuesday

The Sudbury clinic — and 71 other legal clinics in Ontario — are calling on Premier Doug Ford’s government to reverse funding cuts that staff say could threaten their very existence. On Tuesday, rallies were held across the province, including at Ford’s constituency office in Etobicoke, pamphlets will be handed out at subway stations in Toronto and banners will be dropped over major highways. 

Organizers want to show the public “how devastating these cuts will be for low-income Ontarians,” the Sudbury clinic’s executive director Monique Woolnough told HuffPost. 

Her clinic was one of the lucky ones. It only lost about one per cent of its operating budget this year. They are still down one staff member because Legal Aid Ontario, the government agency that funds legal clinics, froze all spending in the spring, Woolnough said.

Other clinics lost up to 40 per cent of their budgets and have had to lay off staff members

“What we’re really concerned about is there’s a much deeper cut coming to the legal aid budget next year,” Woolnough said. 

Legal Aid Ontario is cutting spending by $70 million to $75 million this year, with about $90 million more in cuts to come by the 2021/22 fiscal year. The Ministry of the Attorney General is also doing a “modernization review” of free legal services in the province to see what can be changed.

A spokeswoman for the new Attorney General, Doug Downey, said that the biggest threat to legal aid is Ontario’s Liberal premier who was voted out of power in 2018. 

“The biggest threat to access to justice is the near bankrupt state Kathleen Wynne left Ontario in after years of reckless spending,” Jenessa Crognali told HuffPost by email. 

“We need lawyers and other legal service providers, including legal clinics, to work with our government to build a sustainable, client-focused legal aid system for the future of our province.”

The biggest threat to access to justice is the near bankrupt state Kathleen Wynne left Ontario in after years of reckless spending.Jenessa Crognali, spokeswoman for Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey

The government has previously said that despite the funding cuts, its priority is providing frontline services for low-income people.

Woolnough argues that isn’t true. 

Her clinic has booked fewer intake appointments since the spending freeze was implemented, she said. 

Greer said hearing about the cuts to legal aid — on top of his osteoarthritis diagnosis and his fight with the ODSP — has become overwhelming.

“There’s no empathy. There’s no compassion … What is the benefit of going after certain people when they are not at fault?” he said.

“They’re desperate and let’s drag them down further. Is that the kind of society we want to live in?”

Earlier On HuffPost:

America Votes
The latest polls, breaking news and analysis on the U.S. election from HuffPost’s Washington, D.C. bureau