KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Brenda Thompson was a welfare activist in Halifax in the eighties. Being a single mom who spoke her mind rather than shut up and know her place, she became the target of vicious attacks by the then minister of social services Edmund Morris. But Morris went too far, she took him to court, and won.
We talk to Thompson about an especially vibrant period in Nova Scotia welfare activism, the strong support of the feminist movement, Alexa, journalism, slut shaming, and lots more.
Being a single mother on welfare in the eighties
It was considered a shame to have a baby out of wedlock. Social assistance at the time stigmatized you based on your marital status. If you were a single mother younger than 19 years old you would not qualify for support, you had to stay with your parents or your boyfriend’s parents. You’d be in a real bind If nobody would stand by you.
I was 21 when I had my first daughter, so this did not apply to me. My daughter and I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 22. I was going to vocational school in Dartmouth, and I felt that my daughter had to know that she had one parent, not an assortment of parents.
I applied for social assistance, and I got stuck at the municipal system. Municipal social assistance was supposed to be a short term thing, while provincial welfare was for the long term. The reason I couldn’t get to the provincial level was that I wouldn’t name the father of my child.
Social assistance wanted me to go after the father, take him to court, and get the court to order him to pay child support. But I had seen so many of my friends where the father wouldn’t pay .Each month they had to jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops before social assistance would make up the difference. The system in place was terrible for any woman seeking child support.
Then they finally bullied me into it and I named him. We had a paternity test done, and that somehow concluded that he wasn’t the father. They kept saying “name the real father this time,” and they slipped another affidavit across the table. But he was the father, it’s just that the testing wasn’t very sophisticated in those days.
Activism: Mothers United for Metro Shelter
Poverty activism crystallized around housing issues at that time. A landlord could refuse to rent to you because you had children, or because of your source of income. All this while Halifax at the time had a very low vacancy rate. Single moms on social assistance, or just single moms, could not find a place to live because we were discriminated against.
That’s why Mothers United for Metro Shelter (MUMS) was`formed to fight`that stigmatization and change the law. We were all single mothers, a mixture of nationalities, statuses, skin colours, living circumstances. There were about 25 of us at our peek. We used to meet at Veith House. Jeanne Fay was a big help for us, she was with Dalhousie Legal Aid. We stuck around for four years or so.
They weren’t going to arrest a bunch of mothers with strollers.
We were pretty militant and innovative. We felt that (premier) John Buchanan wasn’t moving on the housing situation and wasn’t taking us seriously. So we went to the legislature, and we formally gave the MLAs their eviction notice. Then we started measuring the Legislature windows for curtains. We brought our kids with us, and these kids were running around everywhere. It was great! The police was called and they brought the paddy wagon, but they weren’t going to arrest a bunch of mothers with strollers.
We frequently protested at the legislature. Or we would target an MLA office. One MLA called us a gaggle of girls or something, so we singled him out. We drew attention to the fact that we were being discriminated against based on our marital status and our income source.
There was a lot of collaboration. Alexa (McDonough) was our biggest fan. Maureen MacDonald was a supporter from way back when. And members of the media were there for us. At the time there were both the Daily News, and the Chronicle Herald, so there was competition, which was helpful.
All hell broke loose
The Daily News published an op-ed I wrote about the housing shortage. And then boom! My mother woke me up early the next morning, she phoned, and she said, ”well, you’ve done it now.”
What had happened is that the night before, during a press scrum after an evening sitting at the Legislature, Edmund Morris, who was the minister of Social Services, literally produced my Social Services case file and said Brenda Thompson is on social assistance and she has twice named the wrong man as father of her child….
He was slut shaming, even though we didn’t have that word then
It was terrifying. I didn’t know what to do, how does one react to something like this? He was slut shaming, even though we didn’t have that word then. And my daughter is three years old, and he was putting that out there. I felt shame for me, and anger for what he did to my daughter.
Morris was playing to the climate at that time. How dare you criticize the hand that feeds you? Don’t you dare question authority, just be grateful! And he was sending a message to everybody in my situation, that if you question authority this is what can happen to you.
At that time the story had gone national. After all, he had read my private social assistance file to reporters. Jackie Barkley, Jeanne Fay and some other women, who for some reason all lived on Black Street and Fuller Terrace, started an organization named Legal Action for Women on Welfare and began fundraising. They collected $4000, which was a lot of money at that time, and I hired lawyer Ann Derick and we took Edmund Morris to court.
In January 1988 a judge very reluctantly found Morris guilty. The maximum fine was $2000, but the judge said that Edmund Morris had done a great deal of civic duty, whereas I was nothing but an unwed mother, so he fined Morris $100. The night prior to the verdict Buchanan shuffled his cabinet and moved Morris to education.
What has changed?
In a way I didn’t appreciate how much better welfare was at the time, at least in some aspects. For instance, in the eighties I could go to university. I had to pay my own way through student loans, but I could remain on social assistance. Now they cut that opportunity off.
With the backwards movement of Community Services we see they are silencing people again. Just the fact that you can be cut off from assistance without warning, that people only find out they have been cut when they go to the bank, that nobody is enforcing the regulations and policies, it all adds up to intimidation.
People of all walks have been silenced
When I was a welfare activist there seemed to be more support. People of all walks have been silenced, reporters don’t report on poverty anymore, maybe people are exhausted. At the time feminists were really collaborative, and the intent was to be inclusive. To me it was like hitting the jackpot.
Maybe it is because we still have that innate believe that a person is poor because of something he or she has done. We still don’t recognize that many jobs don’t pay enough, that there is no affordable childcare. We still blame people for being poor.
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