The government of Canada can outmuscle, outspend and outlast Jasmin Simpson. But it can’t deflect her from her goal.
Simpson, 39, is deaf, blind and has lupus, which causes her immune system to attack healthy cells — skin, joints, organs, blood vessels. She overcame these formidable challenges to earn a master’s degree in social work at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only liberal arts university designed exclusively for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. She now works as a counsellor at the Canadian Hearing Society.
But her education was costly. Because of her disabilities, it took her eight years instead of the usual five to complete her two degrees. (Deaf students normally take one-and-a-half to two times as long as hearing students taking identical courses.) She graduated with a student debt 60 per cent higher than a non-disabled student.
That didn’t seem fair to Simpson. So she launched a charter challenge, claiming that the Canada Student Loan Program violates the constitutionally enshrined guarantee that “every individual has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
The case began seven years ago. Initially, the government seemed eager to set things right. It offered to forgive Simpson’s entire $71,000 student debt — not just the 60 per cent she considered discriminatory — and amend the Canada Student Loan Program, provided she waive her right to go to court.
The offer was tempting, but Simpson responded warily. She asked her lawyer, David Baker, to seek a conditional agreement. If the changes in the program met her concerns, she would accept Ottawa’s settlement and terminate the lawsuit.
Regrettably, they did not. The modest reforms proposed by the Department of Human Resources (now called Employment and Social Development Canada) came nowhere close to putting disabled students on an equal footing with their peers. They would have helped students with mild disabilities. But they did nothing for those with major impairments. Simpson turned down the money.
Federal lawyers were stunned. They made a second offer: The government would erase Simpson’s entire student debt plus interest and cover her legal fees. Her answer was still no.
After that, things got nasty. Two days before Christmas of 2010, she received a letter from Ottawa. “The department now takes the position that the matter is settled,” it said. Ottawa followed up with a motion to the Ontario Superior Court to close Simpson’s case.
Backed by about 30 members of Toronto’s deaf community, she fought the department’s arbitrary action and won. Ever since then, she has been waiting for her day in court. It has been frustrating; each time the case is scheduled to proceed, federal lawyers ask for a delay to search for more documents, get approval for expert witnesses or deal with internal difficulties.
The trial was slated to begin this fall, but federal lawyers said they needed until the end of August to gather evidence, after which pre-trial cross-examination would occur. Baker, her lawyer, is dubious that the government will keep its word.
“In fairness, the case is important, so each side wants to ensure it has the evidence required to win,” he says. “That said, we’ve told the government that our client’s patience is at an end and it must meet the August deadline or we will get a case management judge appointed.”
In one of the few strokes of good luck in her life, Simpson’s application for the Court Challenges program (which allowed individuals facing discrimination to test their equality rights in court without running up massive legal bills) was approved before Prime Minister Stephen Harper abolished the program. Cases already in the system were grandfathered.
Nevertheless it will require sacrifice on her part and her lawyer’s part to stay the course. She will have to take time off work, tell her story in court (through a sign-language interpreter), undergo grilling by government lawyers and handle the stress. Baker will be paid less than the Ontario legal rate to represent her. Both are determined to press ahead.
As she waits for the trial, Simpson is whittling down her student debt and helping other deaf Canadians surmount the barriers she faced. But she cannot rest until a court of law affirms that no one with disability in this country can be penalized — financially or otherwise — for needing extra time, extra help or extra support to reach his or her potential.
In a country that honoured its trailblazers, Simpson would be regarded as an example of courage and tenacity in the face of adversity. In Canada circa 2014, she must fight her own government for justice.