Pubdate: Wed, 15 Nov 2000
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Copyright: 2000 The London Free Press a division of Sun Media Corporation.
Author: Randy Richmond

Lawyers Blast Drug Testing As Trampling Down On Poor

Ontario's plan to force drug testing on welfare recipients will end up
in court but not before handing the poor years of trouble, London
lawyers charged yesterday.

"I think it's a ridiculous idea. There's no evidence there's any more
drug addiction for people on welfare than any other segment of
society," said Jeff Schlemmer, executive director of Neighbourhood
Legal Services in London.

"It's intrusive and totally unnecessary," said lawyer and Free Press
columnist Margaret Buist. "It certainly could be challenged under the
Charter of Rights."

The Ontario government unveiled a plan yesterday that would force drug
testing on welfare recipients. Under the proposal, released by Social
Services Minister John Baird, anyone who refuses treatment would be
ineligible for social assistance.

But Baird insisted the plan -- the first of its kind in Canada -- is
designed to help those who are addicted rather than punish them.

"Our government is not prepared to simply turn its back and write
anyone off," Baird said. "It's tough to get a job and hold a job if
you're addicted to drugs."

The announcement may have more to do with the Tories' recently
proposed 42-per-cent pay hike for MPPs than an attack on welfare
waste, Buist said.

"The Tories gain a lot of right-wing support that's been shaken by the
42-per-cent pay increase.

"They get to trample down on the poor. It's law and order and the poor
all at once."

The province wants to make it look like welfare recipients are drug
abusers, Schlemmer said.

"They should start testing the people who make important decisions --
like cabinet ministers."

It would take five to six years for a test case to go through the
courts, he added.

The proposal is also subject to a six-week consultation process during
which the province will meet with municipalities and legal experts to
hammer out details.

The proposal has already been questioned by Ontario Human Rights
Commissioner Keith Norton.

In a confidential letter to the government last year, Norton warned
drug users can't be denied welfare benefits because addiction problems
are considered a handicap under the province's Human Rights Code.

In July, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that "substance abusers are
handicapped and entitled to the protection of the (Human Rights) Code."

The ruling in the case of Entrop versus Imperial Oil indicated drug
and alcohol abusers cannot be discriminated against.

Andrea Calver of the Ontario Coalition for Social Justice said
mandatory testing would have a serious impact on single mothers and
children, who make up a large segment of the 450,000 Ontarians on welfare.

"Half of the people on welfare are children, and they're going to be
impacted by this legislation because the government wants to kick more
people off welfare," Calver said. "It's wrong."

And people who work with the province's drug addicts say they're
already stretched to their limit dealing with current case loads, and
do not have the resources to treat more patients.

Ontario Premier Mike Harris defended the program, insisting the goal
was to provide help.

"We ought not, just because somebody's hooked on drugs or alcohol . .
. to give up on them," he said outside a government caucus meeting.

"We ought to be doing everything that we can to be providing
rehabilitation and assistance." 
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