For most, falling in love and deciding to move in together is a decision that is entered into freely. You get to know a person you like—maybe love. You find an apartment and start building a shared life together.
Over time, financial and social dependence tends to grow, and after 24 months of living in a “marriage-like” relationship, the Family Law Act begins to apply to your happy cohabitation. You are now effectively spouses, with all the legal and social implications that apply.
If you are poor and on income assistance, the process is quite different. In B.C., if the government—in the form of the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation—is satisfied that a relationship demonstrates (1) financial dependence or interdependence, and (2) social and familial interdependence consistent with a marriage-like relationship, it can determine two individuals to be spouses and cut back income supports after only three months. That’s one eighth the time the rest of us get to decide how we want to share our lives.
This heavily accelerated process allows for far less individual freedom for both partners and creates a level of dependence that can result in real harm. The impact that this class-based legal distinction inflicts on the less fortunate and marginalized people of B.C. (predominantly female citizens and their children) is chilling.
Take the story of Sarah, a single mother who was evicted from her home this past September. Sarah is out of work, as she is recovering from a motor-vehicle crash that severely restricted her basic mobility. She is also being treated for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a traumatic childhood that she is only now starting to come to terms with.
Because of this, she has been forced to leave an affordable apartment in which she has happily raised her child for the past two years.
Sarah’s monthly provincial income assistance totals $877. With this amount she must cover rent, food, clothing and other life essentials. With a vacancy rate in Victoria that is nearly non-existent and some of the least affordable housing in Canada to choose from, Sarah has had little option but to move in with her ex-boyfriend, Larry.
They are no longer romantically involved, but it was the only available option. Not a good option—the only option.
Three months after moving into Larry’s one-bedroom apartment, the government sent her a letter requesting Larry’s financial information, as her file was to be updated. Larry had to report his monthly income from his job as a cashier, where he makes $1,500 a month.
As Larry and Sarah are sharing a one-bedroom apartment and all associated bills, the B.C. government determines them to be in a marriage-like relationship. Sarah now has no income of her own, and she and her daughter are forced into dependence on Larry’s already low monthly income to survive.
Larry must now support three people on his very humble wage. This is the last thing Sarah wanted, and her loss of independence has made her even more vulnerable. Needless to say, the household becomes tense and this undesirable situation gets worse.
There are thousands of Sarahs in B.C.—women who are forced to become rapidly dependent upon an ex-spouse or a new boyfriend and, as a result, become far less able to exercise independence. The unfortunate result is that when subjected to this power imbalance, which can include violence, women are less able to leave.
When the Family Law Act came into force, it was widely touted for alleviating the risk of domestic violence. The same standard should no doubt apply across economic-class divides.
Chilling also is the level of governmental inaction on this matter—especially given the relative ease, administratively and financially, of allowing people in poverty the same legal deference afforded to the more economically secure. It is well past time for the definitions of spouse that apply to people in poverty to be the same that everyone else lives by.
West Coast LEAF, a women’s equality organization, submitted a detailed proposal to the provincial government, complete with the evidence needed to make these changes, and the draft legislation to get it done. All that is needed is the political will and a pen stroke.