Well-de­served

The Compass - - OPINION -

Last month the province pre­sented its first Ova­tion awards and named Hilda Whe­lan as the re­cip­i­ent.

She was awarded for her “for­ti­tude and con­vic­tion in a fight that led to 58 wid­owed women gain­ing ac­cess to the pen­sion ben­e­fits of their de­ceased hus­bands,” the government press re­lease stated.

There is, of course , more to the story than can be told in two sim­ple para­graphs of a government press re­lease.

The Packet fol­lowed Hilda Whe­lan’s bat­tle with the sys­tem from 1996 to 2003 and we feel it de­serves to be told again.

Hilda Whe­lan is a sur­vivor - a sur­vivor of a sys­tem meant to pro­tect the less for­tu­nate, but which failed her mis­er­ably.

Thanks to the poli­cies in those days of Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion and the So­cial Ser­vices de­part­ment, she was forced her to live on $170 a month af­ter her hus­band was killed in a work­place ac­ci­dent in 1968. The money was not nearly enough to cover the cost of rent, heat, lights and food for her and her two young daugh­ters - aged 22 months and six months at the time.

For the first three years of her wid­ow­hood, Hilda Whe­lan lived in a shed with no run­ning water or elec­tric­ity and with just a wood stove to heat the place.

A lawyer ad­vised her at the time she had a good case against her hus­band’s em­ployer; that she could file at least seven counts of gross neg­li­gence against the com­pany.

Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion, how­ever, ad­vised her that if she was go­ing to pur­sue le­gal ac­tion, she would not be en­ti­tled to the $170 monthly ben­e­fit - she could do one or the other - sue or ac­cept ben­e­fits - but not both.

She sought help from the province’s De­part­ment of So­cial Ser­vices. Fi­nan­cially, she would have been bet­ter off un­der so­cial ser­vices ben­e­fits. She would have been pro­vided $160 monthly, as well as a place to rent and have her fam­ily’s med­i­cal ex­penses cov­ered.

But So­cial Ser­vices told her they could not help be­cause she was en­ti­tled to Worker’s Com­pen­sa­tion ben­e­fits.

“They told me if I didn’t ac­cept the com­pen­sa­tion pay­ments, they would take my chil­dren away from me,” she re­lated in a 2001 in­ter­view with The Packet.

With no money, and no op­tions, Hilda Whalen and her chil­dren were forced to live in poverty.

“I had no run­ning water, I had noth­ing. I didn’t even have a drug card. If my kids got sick I had to wait un­til I got my cheque to buy them medicine,” she said in the 2001 in­ter­view.

The sec­ond in­jus­tice against her oc­curred when she re­mar­ried in 1977.

Worker’s Com­pen­sa­tion ad­vised her that since she had re­mar­ried - and es­sen­tially be­came the re­spon­si­bil­ity of her new hus­band - the mea­ger $170 in monthly ben­e­fits would be can­celled. Sadly, she was not unique in that re­gard. Be­fore April, 1985, when the Cana­dian Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms came into ef­fect, wid­ows or wid­ow­ers of work­ers killed on the job had their life-time pen­sions can­celled when they re­mar­ried, even if that sec­ond mar­riage later ended in di­vorce.

When the Char­ter came into ef­fect, only those who came into the Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion sys­tem af­ter April, 1985, ben­e­fited from the changes. Dif­fer­ent prov­inces treated the sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ently. On­tario and Prince Ed­ward Is­land were the first to al­low peo­ple whose ben­e­fits were ter­mi­nated be­cause of re­mar­riage to ap­ply to have their ben­e­fits re­in­stated, retroac­tive to 1985.

The government of Man­i­toba adopted leg­is­la­tion that al­lowed for a one-time, tax-free pay­ment of $83,000 for wid­ows or wid­ow­ers who had their ben­e­fits can­celled be­fore 1985.

Wid­ows in Nova Sco­tia had to take the is­sue to court to win their retroac­tive ben­e­fits.

It wasn’t un­til 1992, seven years af­ter the Char­ter was en­acted, that the government of New­found­land and Labrador amended the Work­ers’ Com­pen­sa­tion Act to al­low sur­viv­ing spouses to con­tinue to col­lect com­pen­sa­tion ben­e­fits af­ter they re­mar­ried.

Even then, the government and Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion found loop­holes. When sur­viv­ing spouses slowly be­gan learn­ing of the amend­ment to the Act, they went look­ing for their retroac­tive ben­e­fits and were told they would be el­i­gi­ble for re­in­state­ment of ben­e­fits only from the day they reap­plied.

A year long court case en­sued and the sur­vivors won the right to have their ben­e­fits paid retroac­tive to 1992.

Hilda Whe­lan, af­ter all she had been through, knew that wasn’t good enough. And she was de­ter­mined that the government and sys­tem that had let her down so badly 20 years be­fore would do the right thing for her and all oth­ers and re­in­state ben­e­fits back to 1985, to the day the Char­ter be­came ef­fec­tive.

The sys­tem may have beaten her down in 1968 and 1977, but it had not bro­ken her.

She worked dili­gently to seek out women who had lost their ben­e­fits af­ter 1985.

She wrote to politi­cians, op­po­si­tion mem­bers and talked to the me­dia, to keep the is­sue in the spot­light.

Through her per­se­ver­ance, Hilda Whe­lan fi­nally got jus­tice for her­self and other sur­viv­ing spouses - all of them women.

In 2006, 15 years af­ter Hilda Whe­lan be­gan her fight to right a wrong, the pro­vin­cial government an­nounced com­pen­sa­tion of over $7 mil­lion for 160 women who had pre­vi­ously been de­nied their de­ceased hus­bands’ pen­sions

The province con­ceded that ben­e­fits would be paid retroac­tively to April, 1985.

The story of Hilda Whe­lan’s fight against the sys­tem has since faded from the spot­light. The news re­ports are buried in the pages of old news­pa­pers and tucked away in fil­ing cab­i­nets or dresser draw­ers.

Yet for those spoke to her then to tell her story, and to fol­low the bat­tle be­tween the sys­tem and the wid­ows, her name has not been for­got­ten.

And when her name was an­nounced last week as the win­ner of the Ova­tion Award, we felt it im­por­tant to tell her story again.

Hilda Whe­lan is an ex­am­ple of what any­one can be achieve if they are de­ter­mined.

Her story proves that re­gard­less of your cir­cum­stance, if you have jus­tice at heart and a vir­tu­ous cause, and are will­ing to rise to fight an­other day, ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble and any­thing is doable.

Bar­bara Dean-Sim­mons is the ed­i­tor of The Packet news­pa­per and writes from Clarenville. She can be reached at ed­i­tor@thep­acket.ca

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