This case concerned the impact of social assistance legislation on women, spouses and children living in poverty. 

LEAF, in partnership with Rosemary Sparks, intervened before the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal. 

Facts 

Brenton Sparks lived with his spouse Rosemary Sparks and their three children. The family received income assistance in one cheque payable to Mr. Sparks. The assistance was made up of personal allowances for Mr. and Ms. Sparks, and a shelter allowance based on the size of the family.  

A caseworker found that Mr. Sparks had failed to comply with the job search requirements of Nova Scotia’s employment services program by failing to attend an appointment with his employment counsellor. As a result, the family’s entire income assistance was suspended. This suspension was affirmed by the Nova Scotia Assistance Appeal Board and upheld by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. 

Arguments 

LEAF and Ms. Sparks argued that, where a person unreasonably refused to participate in employment services, only that person’s portion of income assistance should be suspended – and not the income assistance for the entire family. The decision to hold all members of a family unit responsible for the actions of one of its members had a disproportionate impact on children and their caregivers, in a context in which women experience continued disadvantage socially and economically. Pausing income assistance only for the person who refused to participate in employment services was the only interpretation consistent with the legislation’s purpose, Charter values, and Canada’s international human rights obligations.  

Outcome 

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal held that only Mr. Sparks’ personal allowance should have been suspended. The Court found that the government’s decision to cut off assistance for the entire family had the effect of punishing people living in poverty.  

The racialized nature of poverty in Nova Scotia, and in particular the disproportionate impact of poverty on African Nova Scotian and Indigenous communities, was an important factor in the Court’s decision. The Court also highlighted the importance of Nova Scotia’s international obligations – including a right to an adequate standard of living and social security in a non-discriminatory manner – in interpreting Nova Scotia’s social assistance legislation. 

LEAF is grateful to Claire McNeil, counsel in this case. 

Download the factum here.  

Read the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal’s decision here

Our records are imperfect, but we are doing our best to update them – if you were involved with LEAF on this case but your name is not reflected here, please email us at [email protected].