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It took five months of countless revisions for Josh Dunn to finally nail his application for an Arts Nova Scotia grant, but it was worth the effort.
The 35-year-old Halifax artist got the $12,000 grant to fund a film that had been years in the making and in which he would be one of the six central characters. The film is to be an intimate look at the challenges people with disabilities face finding romance.
The approved application contained a budget breakdown for the six-month project, including a monthly salary of $650. The Department of Community Services has taken every cent of it since he received the provincial grant back in August.
“So now I’m the only one not getting paid for this project,” said Dunn.
The department simply deducts the $650 from his income assistance cheque, which was reduced to a total of $195 in November. Dunn, who copes with a number of serious disabilities, including cerebral palsy, a neurogenic bladder and chronic insomnia, and is unable to work a regular nine-to-five job.
“So this kind of grant or contract work is among the only work I can do but it’s like I’m being penalized by Community Services because my limitations are so great.”
Dunn thought the rules permitted him to keep $450 of that $650 monthly salary. That would be allowed under the Employment Support and Income Assistance Regulations if the provincial government considered his salary wages. But he said he was told by his case worker that the Department of Community Services considers him self-employed and the regulations instruct the department to garnish 100 per cent of business earnings.
“Even though the policy might not intend to be this way it’s discriminatory,” said Dunn. “I’m allowed to appeal. I expect they won’t accept my appeal but I’m willing to go all the way to fight this. I’m earning a modest wage over six months so why doesn’t the department deduct me like they would deduct anyone else?”
Dunn, an experienced multidisciplinary artist, says he’s been provided no documentation from the department explaining its decision.
“I don’t think an arts grant is a business and even if it were, one needs to look at what one’s capabilities are. If you’re doing what you’re able to and trying to get ahead, why should I be penalized for this?”
Vincent Calderhead, a pro bono poverty-law lawyer in Halifax, agrees with Dunn.
“It appears the department has chosen to treat a one-time grant that is absolutely not a business as self-employment and that just seems wrong,” said Calderhead.
“The department’s approach fails to provide any incentive whatsoever for income assistance recipients to pursue other options like an Arts Nova Scotia grant. So why would they bother doing it? Every single penny will be clawed back.”
Calderhead also said he’s surprised that the department hasn’t provided Dunn with a written document explaining its decision. He said the department is also supposed to complete an involved assessment regarding the viability of a business idea prior to allowing a recipient to become self-employed.
But Dunn says that he’s never heard of such an assessment.
The Department of Community Services said it couldn’t speak to specific cases. Spokeswoman Shannon Kerr said in a brief email statement to the Chronicle Herald that wage exemption applies only to wages received from an employer.
“We assess all income received by applicants/ income assistance recipients to determine if any exemptions may apply,” she said.
This isn’t Dunn’s first tangle with the department and Arts Nova Scotia. Two years ago he earned a $6,000 Arts Nova Scotia grant to fund a three-month project. He was kicked off social assistance and was given no financial support over those three months. Dunn was forced to reapply.
This time around he thought he’d be afforded more support.
Despite not being paid, Dunn said he intends to finish the film and hopes to have it featured in national film festivals.
“I will continue with the film because if I’m not doing something I think is impactful and meaningful, I feel like a loser and it’s better than not doing it all.
“My hope is that in telling our stories disabled people might be seen just as human, and in some cases more so, and this could make us more desirable. I don’t know if that will be achieved but that’s what the goal is. My life has been predominantly rejection and confusion ever since I was a teenager.”
After his bills are paid, Dunn’s left with about $20 a week for spending money. That figure would be essentially zero if not for the six home-cooked meals his mother and grandmother provide him each week.
“But every year since I turned 30 I’ve worked toward making more meaningful friendships. That’s happened, the amount and quality of friendships. Every year it gets better.”