St. John’s South-Mount Pearl MP Ryan Cleary says he’s had to resort to filing an access to information request for answers to help a constituent because Advanced Education and Skills Minister Joan Burke’s office is being unco-operative.
“We’ve been dealing with this case now for weeks. It’s been incredibly frustrating,” the NDP MP told The Telegram.
He said it’s the worst he’s encountered.
“We’re fighting (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper tooth and nail on every front up here,” Cleary said in a phone interview from Ottawa.
“But even with the Harper agenda, my office has never experienced this type of frustration. Even Harper isn’t as bad as the (Premier Kathy) Dunderdale administration. … This level of politic is unheard of.”
Cleary has had to step in because he said his office was getting the cold shoulder from Burke’s executive assistant in trying to deal with a plea by Mary O’Dea, a woman on income support who wants to use a stranded persons repatriation transportation policy to go back to Alberta.
Cleary’s office has written permission from O’Dea to deal with her issue.
“Should the minister have to deal with a case like this? No. That’s the whole point. This should be dealt with from a caseworker perspective. They are keeping us away from people who are actually working in the field,” Cleary said.
“The fact we have to go through an executive assistant is another level of politics. It’s not good enough. It doesn’t work for the people we represent. I’m an elected official. I have a job to do.”
Cleary said he also tried speaking to Burke’s official.
“It was cold and almost a bitter attitude when, again, all we are doing is trying to help this person,” he said.
When Cleary took the next step of asking for a meeting with Burke, he was told Burke would only discuss general policy, not the specific case, even though he has that written permission from O’Dea.
And he was told he would have to provide an agenda.
“We’re being blocked from doing our job. I don’t want to go down this path, but it’s a wake-up call to the minister and her department. It should be people first, politics second,” Cleary said.
O’Dea is emotional when talking about her situation. She said she moved to Alberta in 1998, but returned to this province in 2006 for a family funeral and got stuck here. Now she’s being evicted. She said she withheld some rent for road money because if income support won’t help her get back to Alberta, she’ll hitchhike across the country.
“I’m getting out before the snow comes. I want out and I’m going,” the 52-year-old diabetic woman said, explaining she’s suffered a heart condition, depression and various other medical problems since she has been here.
“Nothing but hell and misery. I belong where I came from. I had a life up there.”
“She’s a troubled woman, make no mistake,” Cleary said.
“But from every angle we look at this — we spent a lot of time on this case — she deserves to be helped. She’s being ignored. We can’t even get a reason why the decision on repatriation was turned down.”
O’Dea’s family doctor has written a letter in support of her returning to Alberta, saying it’s in her best interest.
Cleary said the department was told O’Dea is being evicted, but a letter was mailed to her apartment anyway, with no explanation offered to Cleary’s office why she was being turned down.
According to that letter, the department’s internal review has decided O’Dea does not fit the definition of a stranded person because Newfoundland is her home province and she’s been here six years.
O’Dea said she did not have the money to return.
“They’re forcing me to stay here and die,” she said.
Burke said Wednesday there’s been no communication snafu with Cleary’s office and the department has delivered its reasons to O’Dea for turning her down, like any other client.
“If some people don’t like the policy and they just don’t like it, well that’s fine, but there’s no breakdown here,” Burke said.
She said she can’t discuss specifics with Cleary because it would be inappropriate to run political interference in the appeal process, noting the rules and policies need to be consistently applied to be fair to everyone across the province.
After a failed internal appeal, she said a case can be appealed through an independent external appeal process and Cleary’s office can act as O’Dea’s advocates there. If that doesn’t work, there’s the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.
But who would appeal to the courts over a plane ticket?
Burke said it’s not always as “simple as a plane ticket.”
She said the income support program can’t be delivered with politics determining who gets what out of the pot.
As for requesting an agenda, she said that’s basic so she can be prepared on what policies are to be discussed.
She said she’s willing to meet with Cleary to talk about policies and the direction he feels the department needs to go in to have better policies.
“We can talk about policies. … But I can’t sit down and talk about individual cases, because it’s inappropriate to expect me to run political interference when there is already an established appeal process that we would hold every other individual to follow in this province,” Burke said.
But for Cleary it’s about getting someone timely help.
“I can’t stress this enough. This is not politics. This woman needs help. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “This is about immediacy. This is about a person who needs help right now.”