January 5th, 2022
Dr. Matthew S. Johnston's letter to Prime Minister Trudeau about the need for a federal disability benefit resonated widely with disabled Canadians.
Dr. Johnston talked with us about why a Canada Disability Benefit is so needed, the lack of progress in making it a reality, and how mental illness is overlooked as a disability.
Tell us about your background and interests
Matthew: I’m a sociologist. I completed my PhD in Sociology at Carleton University in 2019. My research explores the experiences of people in Canadian mental health systems.
Currently, I am completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Memorial University of Newfoundland and also teach courses in criminology, research methods, and the sociology of health at Carleton University and the University of Prince Edward Island.
But perhaps more pertinent to this conversation, I am a mental health survivor diagnosed with Schizophreniform Disorder, which is a form of schizophrenia.
I’ve encountered both positive and negative experiences in our mental health system, and I believe that survivor knowledge and advocacy are our best tools to convince others (namely, politicians) to reduce the hardships experienced by so many in our disability communities.
Why is a Canada Disability Benefit needed?
Matthew: I look at it this way: Are we satisfied with millions of people just scraping by, if at all, on whatever inadequate monies the provinces provide them? Or do we want Canada to provide a liveable income to those who are vulnerable and may not have the necessary resources and privileges to generate and sustain high incomes?
If we believe in doing the bare minimum, which will only prolong the problem and cost society more in the long run, then what I say next will probably have little effect.
But if we believe in real solutions to very real and urgent problems, then I urge everyone to get on board with pressuring the federal government to come through on their dated promise, now.
What would you want to see in such a benefit (eligibility, amount, etc.)?
Matthew: There are plenty of Parliamentarians and people working in federal public service who can find the appropriate and practical answer to such things, ideally answers that are based on research and input from the disability community.
In determining eligibility, I think any Canadian whose disability seriously inhibits their ability to work should be eligible. We call it a ‘safety net’ for a reason. Also, people with disabilities receiving much-needed assistance shouldn’t be deterred from contributing to the mainstream economy when or if they are able to.
In June Delta's Carla Qualtrough introduced legislation to create a Canada Disability Benefit, but progress on the benefit has been slow
I’ve known people who have received a provincial disability benefit who wanted to work but were deterred from doing so, because starting up any employment meant they were ‘no longer disabled’. This is just not a true characterization of the spectrum of experiences with disability.
Second, the amount provided should actually be a liveable income, meaning it will pay for basic necessities, including housing, food, technology, and so forth. And the amount does not need to be a permanent, fixed number.
As we have seen with initiatives like the Canada Child Benefit, the Canada Disability Benefit should be adaptable and adjusted as problems and living expenses evolve and change.
How would you rate the government’s progress on creating such a benefit?
Matthew: My understanding is that they’ve been promising this for a long time and haven’t delivered. This is unacceptable. I think people in the disability community are simply fed up with asking the federal government to just actualize on those promises.
Clearly, the government can rapidly deliver financial assistance during emergencies, so we know they are capable of making good on their promise, soon.
They've been promising this for a long time and haven't delivered. This is unacceptable.
Many people in federal public service did amazing work to rapidly design and implement the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Public service is stereotyped for being slow, but this is not the case when people unite, put their minds together, and the mandate is clear.
So why not do that again and get this done? I don’t envision there being much political risk to this type of responsible, compassionate, urgent social spending.
How optimistic are you that it will come to fruition?
Matthew: Cautiously optimistic, because if I didn’t believe in my heart that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government would come through on their promise, I wouldn’t have bothered asking them directly. Still, I understand why patience is wearing thin in this community.
Dr. Johnston is 'cautiously optimistic' that the government will deliver on its promise
What the federal government has going for them is I am sure, hostilities and bad blood aside, that other progressive parties like the NDP and Green Party will fully back this initiative and help them make it work.
There will be necessary debates and proposed fine-tunings of the logistics, but I’d like to see Parliament be at that point rather than leaving many people with disabilities to question if they will even receive the benefit at all. That’s just tragic, based on the government’s record on creating other progressive programs.
Any ideas about what people can do to help make it happen?
Matthew: Keep advocating. Keep fighting. Keep spreading dialogue on this issue. Stay resilient. Don’t take ‘no’ or ‘maybe later’ for an answer. Be respectful but raise your voice as necessary. Words matter.
I wrote the letter to the Prime Minister because I was exhausted from hearing so many activists tell me there are many people with disabilities who are still left behind. There is no justification or way to spin this issue in the Liberals’ favour. It is just wrong.
Dr. Johnston's letter to the Prime Minister (click to enlarge)
Each day that passes without a Canada Disability Benefit is a failure of responsibility. And I say this as someone who has mostly been impressed by the current Liberal government – and especially in how they shift and evolve in response to public pressure.
I know some will disagree with me, but I think ‘listening’ is actually one of the Prime Minister’s greatest attributes, and so public pressure is the greatest tool in our democratic playbook to get the government to do the right thing. We need to capitalize on that in this important struggle for disability justice.
Is mental illness an overlooked aspect of disability?
Matthew: Yes. I’ve been told by people close to me that I am “not really disabled” or “not disabled enough”. Not only is this highly offensive, but it doesn’t help in the battle against mental health stigma.
After I experienced my first psychotic break in 2013, I could barely work and concentrate for the better part of a year, even in jobs that were simpler to me and made less use of my skillset.
My wife and I struggled financially because of my disability for a long time. It was actually the Canada Child Benefit that lifted us out of serious financial strain in 2016, when our first son was born and I was pursuing graduate studies and working part-time as a teaching assistant.
I acknowledge my current privilege, and I am grateful to have received this assistance, so the least I can do is speak up for other people who aren’t receiving the assistance they need. People diagnosed with a mental disorder that limits their ability to work need to be eligible for this benefit.
Anything you’d like to add?
Matthew: The Canada Disability Benefit will make Canada stronger. Can’t wait (literally).