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Liberals pledge $253 million to undo Tory-era changes to benefits tribunal

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OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are promising to spend more than $250 million to revamp the body Canadians turn to with disputes over access to federal benefits, partially restoring the system that existed before the Conservatives created the Social Security Tribunal.

The tribunal hears appeals of government decisions on things like eligibility for employment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan that, before 2013, were overseen by four separate bodies.

Key changes included cutting the number of people hearing most cases from three to one, and replacing part-time hearing officials in many places with full-time staff in fewer locations.

In an interview this week, Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the government will bring back the three-person hearings for the first layer of benefit appeals — in a body separate from the tribunal — and retain the tribunal’s single arbitrator for the second, and final, layer.

He said the changes respond to rare agreement from labour and employer groups that some sort of return to the three-panel hearing system was needed.

Tuesday’s federal budget proposes spending $253.8 million over five years, beginning in April, to make the system easier to navigate and shorten decision times. Details about when changes will happen are to be rolled out later.

“It was felt by EI commissioners and the stakeholder communities, both employers and employees, that there was a lack of transparency, and a lack of collaboration in the way in which the system was working,” Duclos said in an interview Wednesday.

“So despite the fact that it was not in my mandate letter, we did feel that it was important to transform the system and there will, therefore, be a return to a tripartite system — more fair, more respectful, faster, (and) more collaborative.”

When the Conservatives unveiled their plans to create the Social Security Tribunal, they argued it would streamline the appeals process and save millions of dollars.

A report last year from consulting firm KPMG estimated the tribunal saved federal coffers about $22.6 million a year, but waits for decisions also shot up as the tribunal was undermanned and overwhelmed with cases and didn’t have a proper transition plan.

Average timelines for decisions increased from approximately 44 days to more than 200, and in the worst case, average wait times of 884 days for decisions on CPP disability benefits that were highlighted in a critical 2016 auditor general’s report.

What the Liberals heard in closed-door meetings and consultations with stakeholders, labour and employers groups, as well as experts over the last three years were calls for a return to the system as it existed before the tribunal’s creation.

At the same time, the KPMG report warned against that, arguing the tribunal could be improved, and some who worked in the system felt things were much better than what existed before.

“(I)t became eventually very clear to me in conversations with employers and employees — and I can tell you there was a consensus, which is rare in that environment … that we needed to transform, to reform that system for all sorts of reasons,” Duclos said. “The first was that it was very unfair, very complex and to the most vulnerable workers in our country, it was not only unfair, but also very slow.”

The tribunal has been changing its operations as officials waited for the budget announcement to publicly detail the future of the tribunal.

Appellants can choose whether to have hearings in person, on the phone or by videoconference. Rule changes have also made it easier to launch appeals and wait times have dropped. The backlog of cases has fallen from about 7,250 in April 2017 to 3,925 at the end of last year.

The budget shows that there will be $36 million spent on the overhaul over the next 12 months, rising to $59 million in fiscal year 2021-2022, and setting in at $57 million annually thereafter.

— Follow @jpress on Twitter.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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National

Saskatchewan to continue using ‘birth alerts’ despite calls by inquiry to stop

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REGINA — The Saskatchewan government says it will continue to track or seize babies born to Indigenous mothers despite a call to stop from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The inquiry’s final report recommends governments and child-welfare agencies immediately abandon what are known as birth or hospital alerts.

Saskatchewan’s Social Services Ministry says the alerts are registered if there is a concern about a mother and the potential safety of her baby.

It says social workers or health professionals can make the reports. 

The alerts allow government officials to be informed when a baby is born so a report can be investigated, which can result in a newborn being seized.

The ministry says 153 newborns were apprehended in Saskatchewan for their own safety as a result of 588 alerts issued from 2015 to 2018.

“We only do that in extreme circumstances,” Social Services Minister Paul Merriman said.

“At the end of the day, if a child is temporarily taken into care — no matter what age they are — our end goal is always reunification with the family to make sure that they have the opportunity to be a family as a whole.”

The ministry says more than 60 per cent of babies taken into care were placed with their extended family while staff worked with the parents.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said the government is unwilling to change its policies when it comes to delivering child welfare.

“When mother and baby are separated, obviously the mother is very distraught. She’s overwhelmed. She’s heartbroken,” said Morley Watson, first vice-chief of the federation, which represents Saskatchewan’s 74 First Nations.

In Manitoba, figures for birth alerts are much higher. A government spokeswoman said that in 2017-18, Manitoba child-welfare agencies issued 558 birth alerts for high-risk mothers, but did not have figures on how many of those resulted in apprehensions.

Cora Morgan, a family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, has said, on average, a newborn is apprehended every day

In January, social media videos surfaced showing a newborn baby girl being taken from the arms of her Indigenous mother by Manitoba social workers and police. The move prompted outrage and renewed calls for changes to child welfare in the province.

A judge granted guardianship of the baby to the mother’s aunt in March.

Morgan said the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs lobbied the MMIW inquiry to look at child welfare.

“Our elders have said that the most violent act you can commit to a women is to steal or take her children away,” said Morgan.

“It’s torturous for the mother.”

 

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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Protests, legal challenges planned to block Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

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VANCOUVER — Opponents of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion are preparing for a long summer of legal challenges and protests aimed at blocking the project from being built.

Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation says it will file a legal challenge in the Federal Court of Appeal and he is confident the First Nation will be successful after Ottawa approved the project on Tuesday.

Squamish Nation Coun. Khelsilem says his band is also prepared for legal action and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says the city will join any lawsuits that are filed.

Lawyer Eugene Kung says there are a number of legal arguments opponents could advance, including that it was impossible for the federal government to make an unbiased decision as the owner of the pipeline.

But Eric Adams, a law professor at the University of Alberta, says the court may be uncomfortable setting a precedent that governments cannot approve projects they support.

A 20-kilometre march is planned for Sunday from Victoria to the Saanich peninsula in solidarity with First Nations that are opposed to the project.

The Canadian Press

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