A Personal Passion for Justice: A Profile of Stephen Portman

By: 

Doug Beardsley

For Stephen Portman, TAPS was the right place at the right time. Having completed his BA in Political Science at UVic, he was certain he’d be serving side salad and fries at a local hotel for years to come. But his volunteer work at TAPS turned into a three - month contract, which led to his becoming an income assistance legal advocate, and later taking on the added job of employment standards legal advocate.

“My father wouldn’t want me to tell this story but he held three different jobs when I was 10. He worked at a doughnut shop. And as a janitor. And as a baker. We lived paycheque to paycheque. We were comfortable,  middle class, but my mother also worked part - time. Friday was always happy because it was payday, but this day my father came home very upset. He had gone to work, but the boss had shuttered the shop. The staff of five found out that not only did they not have a job anymore, they weren’t going to get their paycheques. I knew that we would hurt a bit but we’d be okay. But I knew the others at that shop were not as fortunate, and I went to school with their kids. I never forgot that when those people walked away all they had was each other and none of them really knew what to do. I feel like that was the first labour meeting I ever attended.” In BC in 2006, provincial legislation introduced a self-help kit which meant that before they could actually file a dispute with the Employment Standards Branch, workers would have to meet with their employers to seek resolution. “People with marginalized backgrounds or a variety of challenges simply don’t know how to go about it, or don’t feel they are empowered enough to go to an employer and address an employment standards concern,” Stephen says, “for fear of losing their job, for fear of being fired and not having access to EI or income assistance. With income assistance, an applicant is ineligible for basic welfare for a period of two months if she or he has been terminated from employment with just cause.

“For them to complete an eight-page self-help kit and approach their employer is something that they are just not going to do.” Stephen reflected: “As a result, the rate of employment standards complaints filed in the year after the introduction of the kit fell by 65 per cent. And so, employees face a two-month period of ineligibility, they lose their home, they hit the street, they are in a bad way.”

With financial support from the Victoria Foundation, Stephen developed a power point presentation that was basically a crash course in employment standards law designed for youth and migrant workers in the Capital Regional District. He took the presentation to over 250 people, such as service providers and workers themselves, and encouraged them to discuss how to assert their rights through the legislation and to strategize about when to do so, when to wait to do so, when laws apply, and when laws don’t apply.

“People need representation services, they need to feel supported, they need someone to talk to, someone in their corner who knows the process,” Stephen found. “This is especially apparent when talking to temporary foreign workers, ESL people who carry all the protections but no understanding of the *Employment Standards+ Act, or even a cultural understanding of what employment rights mean in a Canadian context. Young workers are also highly exploited — BC has the worst employment protection for youth workers in Canada. Work-related standards in BC have been eroded to the point where there can now be some fundamental changes in law. There’s no funded representation for heavily-marginalized non-unionized workers. It’s very exciting to be involved,” Stephen exclaims. “It’s been a passion of mine for a long time.

“The Ministry of Social Development *and Social Innovation+ is instrumental in the perpetuation of poverty in British Columbia. Anyone who has any interaction, whether they are dependent on that body for their survival, or whether they’re assisting people to navigate that bureaucracy for their survival, you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the system is so unbelievably broken, cumbersome, ineffective, expensive, degrading; it’s a pride-swallowing siege that people have to endure the violence that is put upon them by that body.

“I have done income assistance legal advocacy for four years, I have an intimate knowledge of the ministry, I know how the legislation works, why it was drafted, how it was intended, and I can’t see a worse way to address poverty than the system that we have in place in BC. If you live in Victoria, you simply have to look on the streets of this community. Look at the line-up at the food bank, the people sleeping in your next door neighbour’s back yard and you know what I’m saying is true.

“The law needs to be changed, the program itself needs to be changed, there needs to be federal-provincial buy-in, we need a guaranteed annual income. As long as we continue to believe that by punishing people for being poor, we’ll help them become self-contributing members of society, we are going to continue to increase the deprivation of our community. You can’t take someone when they’re at their worst, push their face down deeper in the mud, and expect that that is the most effective way for them to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’

“The politics that hasgrown out of the theory that punishing people works has also resulted in the theory that government doesn’t have a role to play. Politicians believe that the community, the non-profit sector, will solve everything, so they cut back the service to a point where it doesn’t provide a service. In BC we’ve created a recipe for disaster.”