Gosselin v. Quebec is a landmark court decision in Canadian law, which had a significant influence on social affairs. It is the first poverty case under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that reached Canada’s Supreme Court, with the latter ruling against the applicant Gosselin and the recipients of the class social assistance represented by her. In the decision, the court upheld a Quebec law that paid drastically lower benefits to the claimants between the ages of eighteen and thirty that were considered fit to work. Although the decision was divided, the majority decision found that the evidence presented by the claimant as insufficient. The case bears importance because the claimants in it challenged the negative stereotype within the realm of social assistance regulation regarding young people who rely on social assistance. Even though the restrictive law aimed to encourage young adults to participate in employment programs, it did not consider the true costs of living in Canada and discriminated against a specific population group.
The years 1984 and 1989 were considered the time of alarming and rising unemployment among young adults. The Quebec government, under section 29(a) of the Social Aid Regulation, offered $170 monthly assistance to citizens who were single and under thirty years old. The amount was only a third of the regular benefits paid to individuals older than thirty years old. Full benefits were only available in case if individuals would participate in either of the employability programs, such as On-the-Job Training, Community Work, or Remedial Education. The objective of the seemingly discriminatory legislation was to encourage young people to find work or go to school. According to the Supreme Court of Canada, the new legislation was based on the idea that the most suitable way for enabling younger generations to join the workforce was to make the increased benefits interconnected with the participation in workforce programs.
Louise Gosselin, the claimant in the case, was a recipient of welfare under the age of thirty and brought a class action to challenge the scheme of social support on behalf of all recipients of welfare under thirty years old who were subjected to the differential regime. Gosselin argued that the social regime of Quebec went against section 7 of the Charter, and section 15 regarding age, and section 45 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (“Gosselin v. Québec (Attorney General),” 2002). The claimant requested that section 29(a) of the Regulation be considered to have not been at work between 1987 and 1989. Also, the government of Quebec was requested to reimburse all recipients of reduced welfare for the difference between what they were actually paid and what they would have received if they were thirty and older, which would amount to approximately $389 million, with additional interest.
The case raises several important issues in Canadian law as related to the interpretation and use of section 15 and section 33 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedom, as well as the justiciability of the economic rights of individuals. At the basis of such issues, however, are the most detailed normative challenges that are concerned with the highly debated field of social and economic rights. Such normative issues are associated with the degree to which a nation-state should be responsible for providing the basic necessities to its residents, as well as the reliability and legitimacy of the judicial perspective for assessing the right claims of the young and impoverished.
The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Gosselin v. Quebec (Attorney General) is a déjà vu. This is because since the beginning of the 80s there has been an issue with courts rejecting claims of equal rights based on the opinion that the government can treat a population group differently if such a group is perceived to be differently situated. Ever since the pre-Canadian Charter on Rights and Freedoms and the era of Bliss v. Canada (Attornet General), the advocates for equality in the country along with legal scholars have been seeking to make a shift in equality rights analysis. However, the Gosselin decision, in which the Court concluded that poor young adults are “not similarly situated,” and thus can be excluded from social assistance. Such an exclusion is warranted, in the Court’s view, because the government is trying to promote the autonomy of the citizen group, thus replicating the pattern of rejecting equality rights claims.
The decision made by the majority that dismissed the claim made by Gosselin was based on the finding that there was insufficient evidence to support it, with the trial judge having the same decision. However, the issues that were identified in the case, especially in the light of the fact that evidence was dismissed as lacking, are especially concerning. The main point of disagreement between the majority and minority was the application of the Law test for discrimination. The three-step test set out for identifying discrimination identifies whether there is differential treatment, whether the differential treatment relies on the enumerated ground, and whether the differential treatment is discriminatory. The purpose of section 15 was to prevent violations of essential human freedom and dignity by disadvantaging individuals or stereotyping them, as well as causing political and social prejudice. The section also intended to encourage a society in which all individuals have the same recognition of the law as human beings and Canadian society members. The individuals-members of society are considered equally capable and equally deserving of care, concern, respect, and consideration.
The case is important to consider even in the context of modern Canada. Even though the country has expansive wealth and resources, a disproportionate number of its citizens continue living in poverty and without stable employment. According to Canadian Poverty Institute (2020), income inequality is increasing with the recent estimates indicating that over 14% of Canadians are dealing with a low income. Many more live from one paycheck to another and are at a high risk of falling into poverty, which indicates that financial security is a problem for far too many people. In the present socio-economic and healthcare context in which the lockdown due to COVID-19 has left more people without or with limited employment, support from the government is especially important. Moreover, the individuals living near the poverty line are often young and thus are more vulnerable to economic instabilities associated with the pandemic. A similar situation is illustrated in Gosselin v. Quebec, with the claimant suggesting that the government’s limitation of benefits to the population-based on age is counterproductive especially since there are situations in which getting a stable income is complicated because of a certain socioeconomic condition.
Another challenge associated with the law case is that the test for discrimination that is to be applied lies on the burden of proof. In Gosselin v. Quebec, the Court stated that the claimant possessed such a burden under section 15(1) to illustrate that the challenged distinction was discriminatory in nature and harmful to their dignity, warranting compensation. While the required standard of the burden of proof is clear, it is challenging for claimants to meet such a standard have increased. For example, the concept of human dignity is ambiguous and abstract, which makes it hard to judge the case from the perspective of human rights violations and requires distinct assessments and of the context in which discrimination took place. Furthermore, even considering the increased evidentiary expectations of the discrimination test, providing a full evidentiary record may not be sufficient for persuading the Court of a law’s discriminatory effect of the law or practice pursuant to the injury to dignity.
To conclude, the case is important for understanding the consequences of severe poverty and the implications of restrictive legislation. Ms. Gosselin and other claimants that she represented were exposed to the challenges stemming from poverty, and the restrictive law implied that being under thirty years old was the main implication. Gosselin’s mental and physical integrity was affected as a result of severe poverty since it is uncontested that life under a continuous threat of poverty is psychologically challenging. There is no dispute that Ms. Gosselin at times had to live below the government’s standard of bare subsistence. For instance, while the guaranteed payment for the identified adult group was $170, the monthly expenses to guarantee appropriate nourishment at the time of the case was $152 (Sampson, 2006). This shows that the restrictive law, even though it aimed to encourage young adults to participate in employment programs, did not consider the true costs of living in Canada and discriminated against a specific population group.
Canadian Poverty Institute. (2020). Poverty in Canada. Web.
Gosselin v. Québec (Attorney General). (2002). Web.
Sampson, F. (2006). Gosselin impact study. Web.