Fighting back tears, Richard McLean said he hoped people with disabilities would get back the money he feels was unfairly taken away.
“We have a right to live too,” McLean told Radio-Canada’s La Facture in February 2020.
McLean died in 2022, but the legal battle he launched against the Quebec government is far from over.
And sensing the province still doesn’t want to do the right thing, a group representing people with disabilities is taking that fight to the United Nations.
McLean’s case against Quebec centres on steep penalties that are imposed on people with disabilities when they retire, raising questions of equality and dignity.
In Quebec, if someone goes into early retirement between the ages of 60 and 64, they’ll be hit with a reduction of their monthly pension benefits that could reach 36 per cent.
The problem for McLean and many other people who retired with a disability is this penalty is also applied to them even if they were in one of the following situations:
- They were forced into early retirement due to a disability.
- They retired at 65 after having received disability benefits between 60 and 64.
These rules were put in place in 1997 by Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québécois (PQ) government.
In 2020, McLean took his case to the Tribunal administratif du Québec (TAQ), a tribunal where people can challenge decisions made by provincial ministries and agencies as well as municipalities.
Last July, the tribunal ruled that the financial penalty is discriminatory and violates the Charter-protected right to equality.
But the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government is appealing the decision to Quebec’s Superior Court.
“Our government is sensitive to the reality of people aged 60 or over who find themselves in a situation of disability,” reads a statement from the office of Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard.
“However, the government chose to request an appeal for judicial review of the administrative tribunal of Quebec’s decision, in particular, to clarify the applicable law.”
The CAQ has also reduced the penalty for retirees with disabilities from 36 to 24 per cent, a small consolation for people who still feel wronged by their own government.
“This discriminatory measure is not only counter to the fundamental principles of human rights, it also compromises the dignity and well-being of disabled people,” reads a letter from the Confédération des organismes de personnes handicapées du Québec (COPHAN), that was included in a complaint filed with the United Nations on Jan. 24.
COPHAN and Sophie Mongeon, McLean’s lawyer, have told CBC News that Quebec is the only province in Canada to impose such penalties on retirees with disabilities.
According to Retraite Québec, the provincial agency that oversees pension payments, about 73,000 Quebecers with disabilities currently have their monthly retirement payments slashed as a result of these rules.
McLean had his first stroke in the early 2000s when he was about 50 years old. He eventually had to use a wheelchair and stop working.
Because he continued benefiting from disability payments after turning 60, the amount he received monthly was cut from about $1,100 to a little under $700 when he turned 65.
That’s after Danielle Drolet, McLean’s spouse, retired early herself to focus more of her energy on caring for him.
The reduced income for both took both a financial and mental toll. McLean appeared to grapple with a sense of guilt.
When he died in 2022, after opting for medical assistance in dying, “the last words he said was, ‘I apologize for having been a heavy financial burden for you for all those years,” Drolet recounted.
Drolet and McLean’s son, Kevin, felt they had to keep up his legal fight against Quebec.
“[It’s not] to help us — because it’s over,” Drolet said.
“It’s to help all those people who are in the same situation.”
Over the years, the movement to put an end to those penalties has grown. It also received public support from an unlikely ally.
‘I blame myself’
During the ’90s, the money in the coffers for the province’s pension plan was dwindling.
That’s when the PQ government and Louise Harel — who the minister in charge of employment from 1994 to 1998 — changed the pension rules, a move she described at the time as being necessary to help future generations of retirees.
In an interview with Radio-Canada’s La Facture that aired on Jan. 16, Harel said she and her team did not believe the changes would have such a negative effect on the livelihood of retirees with disabilities.
“I blame myself,” she said. “That’s why I’ve been showing my support as much as I can.”
She’s urging the current government to undo the PQ’s decision from 27 years ago.
“We’re not in the same situation anymore,” she said. “I would even say that we shouldn’t have done it even in 1997.”
In recent months, all of the opposition parties at the National Assembly have heavily criticized the CAQ’s decision to appeal the TAQ’s ruling.
The possibility of retroactive payments has been brought up, something the province’s finance minister has said is unrealistic, given the current state of the Régime de rentes du Québec (RRQ).
“I am aware of how important this file is,” said Girard in the National Assembly last November. “The RRQ’s margins are not sufficient for us to make a decision that is retroactive [back to 1997].”
Around that time, Liberal MNA Linda Caron tabled a bill seeking to amend the rules around disability payments.
The pressure on the CAQ is mounting. There’s a growing sense that something needs to change.
And with Quebec’s appeal case looming, Drolet is feeling confident her late spouse’s efforts will ultimately pay off.
“We think that we can win again,” she said. “There are so many people with us.”