HALIFAX — Nobody has the unfettered right to live in government-assisted housing of their own choosing, a lawyer for the Nova Scotia government told a human rights board of inquiry Monday.
"It is not a right guaranteed by the government," said Kevin Kindred, the counsel for the Attorney General, during opening arguments in a case advocates say could help people with disabilities move into supported housing in the community.
The inquiry is considering the case of two people seeking to move out of locked-door, hospital-like settings and a third complainant who has died since the case started.
Vince Calderhead, the lawyer for the three complainants, told the inquiry that Nova Scotians with disabilities who are kept in institutions are the "last vestiges of the ... county asylum" where impoverished citizens were once housed.
Calderhead said it contravenes the Human Rights Act to keep people with intellectual and physical disabilities in facilities where they lack control over their own lives, can seldom go out, and may be hundreds of kilometres from their family.
He cites sections that prohibit discrimination in the provision of government services on the basis of physical or mental disability.
"When the government provides social assistance to people in Nova Scotia, the way it provides it to people with disabilities cannot be worse than people without disabilities. That is the essence here," he told reporters after the morning session.
However, Kindred argued before inquiry chairman John Walter Thompson that while the province supports the principle of community-based care, it's not a human right as defined in the legislation.
Housing programs offered to people on social assistance also have limits and waiting lists, said Kindred: "When the government does provide housing solutions it can only do so in a way that involves limited choices and a system of limited capacity."
The arguments being made to the board of inquiry about waiting lists and inadequate services are better made to the minister of Community Services, argued the provincial lawyer.
"You're here in your role as a board of inquiry ... and that role isn't to make policy decisions about reform or how to best serve the needs of people with disabilities ... This is not a public inquiry of the government's programs for persons with disabilities as much as sometimes the complaint seems to be set up with something like that in mind," he said.
"Most social problems the government is called to address are not discrimination."
Still, the case, which will be heard over the next two months, is already surfacing details on the difficulties of the lives of people with disabilities in the province.
Two nieces of Sheila Livingstone, the complainant who died during various delays in the case, were on hand as Calderhead told her story to the inquiry chairman.
The lawyer said Livingstone had lived in institutions for much of her life, but for 18 years did well in a small options home.
When she was temporarily hospitalized, she lost her place in the community and remained in a locked-door facility for a decade.
"After a series of assaults on her, and complaints about those assaults, she was offered a placement not in the Halifax area but in Yarmouth. Why Yarmouth? Because there was a bed," said Calderhead.
The location of the supported home was 300 kilometres from her friends and family.
The lawyer said he has documentation from the province showing from 2011 officials believed she could have lived in the community.
"In the fall of 2016 she died with no family member around. ... That is a feature of the province's treatment of people with disabilities," the lawyer told the judge.
After the hearing, Jackie McCabe-Sieliakus, Livingstone's niece, said she's hoping the hearing prompts changes.
"A lot of people are in the system like Sheila. Sheila suffered a lot and I think the government needs to step up and everybody needs to hear the story," she said.
"It won't make a difference to Sheila now. But it will make a difference to other people."
The other complainants in the case are 45-year-old Joseph Delaney and 46-year-old Beth MacLean. Both have said in court documents they should be permitted to move from the hospital-like settings into small homes where assistance is provided in areas such as meals and personal care.
The Disability Rights Coalition, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, is also participating in the case.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Community Services has said it is working to improve its Disability Support Program and to create more small-options homes.
The province says a new program called Flex Independent is making efforts to ensure that the community-based supports are in place and is moving people to them when it is safe to do so.
The Liberal government has said it is investing $4.2 million to develop eight small option, community-based homes over the next two years, bringing the total from 222 to 230 homes.
There were about 504 people awaiting some form of support from the Department of Community Services as of last Thursday, and 1,024 people awaiting a transfer to a different housing option or location.
The human rights case resumes hearings on Feb. 13 at a hotel meeting room in Halifax.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press