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 email@example.com