When lockdown guidelines were implemented by the Province of BC, many legal services were put on hold. Courthouses were closed and legal professionals were forced to find new ways of supporting clients without seeing them in person. Our three legal advocacy programs were able to adapt to this new model and continue helping people as best they could during such a trying time.
Legal Advocacy for Agricultural Workers
Border closures and travel restrictions quickly filled life with uncertainty for agricultural workers who are essential to our local economy and food supply. They include everyone from berry pickers and other produce farm employees to nursery and greenhouse staff and poultry and dairy farm hands.
Initially there was a lot of confusion about obtaining work permit renewals, being unable to travel home or being stuck at home, unable to travel to work. Some workers traveled to Canada only to lose their jobs a short time later and others were subjected to abuse and on the edge of returning to their home countries. Others had jobs awaiting them but were stuck in other countries due to travel restrictions, such as the country-wide lockdown in India.
At Archway, our Legal Advocacy for Migrant Workers program includes Claudia Stoehr, our Spanish-speaking advocate, Sarbjit Gill and Ricky Bhadesh, Punjabi-speaking advocates and supervisor Gurcharan Dhillon. Through their combined expertise, they helped temporary foreign workers access food and support during periods of quarantine, apply for other work permits and find new employment, register with Global Affairs if they were Canadian citizens abroad and even apply for CERB and BC Emergency Benefits if they were eligible.
“There was a lot of work involved in making the program pivot in response to the pandemic,” explained Gurcharan. “We had to very quickly ensure the team had the proper equipment to work remotely throughout the pandemic. At the same time, we had to make sure that clients who had little to no access to technology were not falling through the cracks.” The team worked on applying all of Archway’s COVID-19 guidelines to ensure staff safety for those continuing to work from the office.
Claudia noted that while she could work effectively from home, it didn’t have the same “feel” as seeing clients in person; however, it was necessary for safety’s sake. “In Latin culture people are very sociable,” she advised. Most of the farm workers are used to being able to drop by the office when they need support. Even when they work long hours six to seven days a week, the Legal Advocacy team adjusts to assist them.
Already dealing with uncertainty, the lockdown amplified their sense of isolation and loneliness while they were away from their homes and families. “Whether we connect in-person or virtually, we like to let the migrant workers know they are not alone and that as an agency we are here to help them,” said Gurcharan.
The program was able to help over who arrived during the pandemic and needed to be advised immediately on quarantine requirements and other guidelines. Connections to staff who speak their language was both comforting in an unfamiliar place and ensured newly arrived workers knew what was expected of them regarding COVID.
Sarb, Claudia and Gurcharan at 2019’s Migrant Workers’ Health Fair.
“We had to make sure that clients who had little to no access to technology were not falling through the cracks.”
Claudia with donations for migrant workers.
Frances De Beir in the Archway Family Legal Advocacy program is also busy supporting clients remotely, many of whom are experiencing new challenges arising from the pandemic.
During COVID-19, Frances quickly noticed her clients’ needs changing. When courthouses began to close, only documents for urgent matters could be filed. Many clients struggled to see their children. “Unfortunately,” Frances reports, “the other party sometimes uses the pandemic as a reason for denying parental access even though court orders are still supposed to be followed.”
Other clients have come to Frances for assistance with obtaining protection orders against abusive former partners, speaking to duty counsel in the courtroom, preparing to self-represent, being granted interim access to their children and obtaining more legal aid hours.
It’s Frances’ first year in her role as an Archway Family Legal Advocate and she’s noticed many clients find completing court forms challenging or aren’t certain how the legal system works. She’s glad she can be there to support them, even if it is via the phone or internet. She also looks forward to the new Supreme Court opening in Abbotsford, which will make assisting and attending court with clients easier.
Frances at work.
The pandemic is also a time of economic uncertainty, which is manifesting in different ways throughout our community. Ilena Candiani, the Community Legal Advocacy Supervisor, has been busy supporting people in Abbotsford while her co-worker Kim Donaldson works out of Chilliwack. Due to physical distancing measures, they both began working remotely and connecting with clients and others by telephone or video conferencing.
While Ilena and Kim have seen a decline in evictions and holds on Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (MSDPR) cheques during the pandemic, such situations haven’t entirely stopped. While the Residential Tenancy Branch initially had a Ministerial Order put in place halting most evictions since the end of March, it has now changed. In most cases, evictions are once again permitted and evictions for non-payment of rent resume September 1st. Ilena and Kim note that tenants who were unable to pay rent during COVID-19 have until July 2021 to repay the arrears.
Initially, the MSDPR had suspended most holds on cheques at the start of the pandemic. Most holds are in place when clients need to provide further information such as identification, medical reports, employment insurance information or similar. COVID-19 made obtaining such information challenging, necessitating the hold. However, as all levels of government adjust to the “new normal,” information is becoming available and holds are being reintroduced.
The ever-changing circumstances result in a significant increase in Kim’s and Ilena’s workloads as measures protecting clients are lifted. They are also busy preparing to assist with overpayment of Canada Emergency Response Benefits (CERB.) Ilena notes that, “while CERB was rolled out quickly in order to help citizens get some income, little to no proof of eligibility has resulted in many people collecting benefits for which they were not eligible.”
Ilena also notes that while the volume of disability applications decreased at the start of the pandemic due to doctors’ being focused on the pandemic, they too will start to pick up.
As everyone adjusts to the current situation and the government offers various financial supports for those facing hardships during the pandemic, questions arise regarding applications and eligibility. Helping people who are facing evictions, being found eligible for benefits after a denial or learning what their rights are to avoid being taken advantage of are successes for her, and helping people create road maps to accessing community services are highlights! “Arming people with knowledge is sometimes as much of a success as winning a case,” she shared.
As supervisor of the legal advocacy team, Ilena is also there to support her team. She has found adapting to the “new normal” both physically and emotionally challenging but remains committed to her work.
Ilena and Kim at work.
“Arming people with knowledge is sometimes as much of a success as winning a case.”
Archway’s many programs include Legal Advocacy for Agricultural Workers, the Migrant Workers Program, Community Legal Advocacy and Family Legal Advocacy.
We also offer One Line Referral, Crime Victim Assistance and Specialized Victim Assistance Programs.
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