The struggle to get on disability in Quebec

This is what it’s like to come from out of province and try to access disability benefits in Quebec.

The CLSC — the source of much frustration

This story was originally published in Cult MTL‘s April print edition.

I am poor and crazy. Been crazy for most of my life, and poor for a little more than a decade. The medical language of the crazy is pretty simple — severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, autism spectrum disorder. The combination of the three hasn’t prevented me from working — I have a master’s, am working on a second, have published regularly, shown my art in galleries here and abroad, presented at conferences and curated off and on for most of that decade. But it has prevented me from a secure job that guarantees the rent will be paid.

In order to feed and house myself, I have been on disability in two provinces. Since moving to Quebec in September, I have tried to add a third to this list.

Getting the state to believe that I am crazy enough for them to pay me has never been easy. Alberta decentralized all of its services, so any appeal had to happen at 9 a.m. in a town two hours outside of Edmonton, when the only Greyhound there arrived at 11 a.m. My friend Pat, who helped me in Ontario, described the experience as “what would happen if Kafka wrote documentaries.” So I felt equipped for Quebec.

This province, however, is the worst I have ever experienced. I have no idea how to get disability, though I have been trying to do so since September. I spent my first few months here living in NDG, and it took me two months to figure out how to contact my local CLSC and to get them back to me. It also took me months to get my health card.

Both of these facts stem from the province of Quebec’s obsession with leases. If you are poor, you don’t get a lease. You live under the radar—in Craigslist finds, in sublets that may or may not be legal, on the grace of friends, in shelters or on the street. I rented a room in someone’s home. I was lucky to be housed, but the only way to get a health card was to have signed a lease myself.

I moved out of the place in NDG before I could get connected to the CLSC there. I relocated to a room in a shared house on St-Antoine. Montreal is a barely coherent collection of neighbourhoods that call themselves cities. It took almost a month of phone calls to find out if I lived in Westmount or St-Henri. Neither was correct. My CLSC was in Verdun.

This resulted in an appointment with a social worker who, speaking French to the worker from the Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec, determined that I could have a letter from school instead of a lease to get the health card. I was also finally told where the office was to get paperwork to apply for social assistance (this paperwork is not online).


The welfare office would not give me my paperwork until I could prove I was a resident of that neighbourhood—though disability is provincial. I was standing in front of them, six inches of plexi between us, on the verge of tears, wanting assistance, and having to beg for the forms.  At the exact opposite end of the line was a woman who spoke Tamil. Her husband was sick. Her English and French were both sub-optimal. A worker proceeded to yell at her because of this. This yelling resulted in the woman breaking down and crying.

This frustration seemed symbolic. The documents I needed were confusing, and the communication became impossible to follow. I did not want to tell my roommates that I was applying for disability because it might have made housing more tenuous. But though I now had a health card, a credit card bill, a letter from my school and a letter from my roommates themselves, the only way that I could prove that I was a resident was through a form from the ministry.

Because I declared a very small amount of freelance income, they needed me to print off the last three months of bank statements and declare every cent that was coming in and going out. This meant that the loans and gifts from friends and family that allowed me to eat, pay medical bills or cover other incidentals might be considered income.

Every element of my life was under examination. No deviation from protocol and forms could be allowed (medical records from my GP were no good, for example).  I am in the middle of the process, still. I need to hand out more forms, take more meetings, beg for access.

I am lucky. I have friends who have helped. I am university-educated. But getting access to resources has become farcical. My GP has faxed forms to my social worke that were then returned. The forms are all carbon copied, so medical records by fax or email do not exist. I am still not sure if the aforementioned bank records have to be notarized or not. They require a birth certificate, and a passport is not a substitute. If one leases, then one can note how much utilities cost; if one rents a room, one cannot.

This is just the paperwork fiascos. If I did not speak English, if I did not have a roommate who would fill out the forms, if I had lesser housing or a more rigid schedule (they are supposed to be open from 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m., but I have seen them open as late as 9:20 a.m. and close as early as 4:15 p.m. They have a lunch from 12–1 p.m., though I have been there twice around 1 p.m. and met people waiting, saying the offices were closed from 1–3 p.m.), then it would be impossible to work out anything at all.

Quebec has made me feel like a thief. Not that I was unworthy of disability funding. Not that I was disabled at all — we have not even reached that level of detail. The assumption is that everyone going into that office is trying to cheat the government of Quebec out of its money. Recent hearings about corruption in the province place the control that the government exercises over the poor into stark relief. If that much effort was put into keeping tabs on the construction industry, there might be no corruption left in Montreal. ■

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