MONTREAL — Social activists are denouncing a Quebec government practice that cuts off welfare payments if recipients leave the province for a week or more.
The so-called 7/15 rule was introduced in 2015 as part of a number of changes designed to get people back to work.
It states that welfare recipients have their payments suspended if they spend more than seven consecutive days or 15 days a month outside of Quebec. That forces them to reapply and repay any amounts paid out while they were deemed inadmissible.
Activists say the rules have an adverse impact on certain groups, notably immigrants and women who have to forgo travel for events like marriages, illness or death for fear of having their payments cut.
"We've met people who are depressed, isolated, even traumatized," Sheetal Pathak of Project Genesis, a community organization, told a news conference Wednesday.
"They've deprived themselves of a rare visit to see their loved ones, despite (the fact that) such a visit would have a had huge impact on their lives."
Carmensita Sapanta has lived in Canada for 28 years, working retail and factory jobs before epilepsy forced her from the job market.
In 2016, Sapanta's elderly mother became bedridden in her native Philippines. A relative paid for Sapanta to return and care for her for six weeks.
Upon her return, Sapanta found herself cut off from assistance. After reapplying for benefits, she had to reimburse part of her monthly $600 payment. Like most people on welfare, she had little to no savings to fall back on.
"I promised my mom I would go back to see her before she died," Sapanta said, fighting back tears. She didn't, out of fear her payments would be cut.
She was among several people who demonstrated Wednesday in front of a Montreal building that houses the province's administrative tribunal, where one recipient was contesting the travel restrictions rule.
"I felt so guilty when I didn't see my mom," Sapanta said. "I hope the government will understand our situation."
Each province sets its own eligibility rules from social assistance, but Quebec's stand out as particularly restrictive, Pathak said.
Some provinces and territories like British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories cut off applicants after 30 days.
Ontario, like Quebec, can suspend assistance after seven days. However, it also allows a recipient to request an extended leave.
Pathak said community groups are hoping to get Quebec to scale back the rules.
"We all have a constitutional right to move freely in Canada and we think welfare recipients should have the same rights," Pathak said.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press