St. John's city council has put fear in the heart of the disability community by evicting Shirley Cox

St. John's resident Anne Malone, who is visually impaired, says the eviction of an elderly woman has been met with disbelief from the disabilities community. (Katie Breen/CBC - image credit)
St. John's resident Anne Malone, who is visually impaired, says the eviction of an elderly woman has been met with disbelief from the disabilities community. (Katie Breen/CBC - image credit)

This is a column by Anne Malone, a disability justice advocate in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

A Dickensian saga has unfolded in St. John's, ending in the eviction of an elderly woman from public housing, for no reason the city will talk about.

The move has left seniors and the disabled community scared and confused.

Monday night's city council meeting included a dazzling performance of improvisational scripting, wandering narratives, ambient gaslighting, blame shifting, avoidance and scapegoating — backed by a chorus of echoes of the same oblique talking points, ad nauseam.

Offstage and invisible was Shirley Cox, a disabled 82-year-old woman whose mental and physical safety, access to shelter, material possessions and personal agency lay in the hands of at least 11 non-disabled people.

The tension in council chambers was palpable, as protesters waited, clinging to a tiny thread of hope that somebody, anybody, would move that this eviction be added to the agenda so someone could express dissent.

But there would be no hero, no plot twist, no happily-ever-after.

The mayor, resplendent in colonial regalia, dropped a gavel lest the name "Shirley Cox" be invoked in their presence.

Curtis Hicks/CBC
Curtis Hicks/CBC

Decorum must prevail, and anyway, they've done nothing illegal.

And just like that, a disabled senior woman was evicted from public housing without cause or explanation, and discarded into homelessness without any evident thought about the harm this will have first on Shirley Cox, but also on the disabilities community, and the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities who also are identified in the Human Rights Code as targets of discrimination.

The move is a signal to all of us that at any time, without disclosing why, even in the most dire of economic conditions, the city can and will evict.

Did they think about how this might look and feel to people who live with disabilities, who live in legislated poverty, with a cost of living averaging 30 per cent higher than non-disabled people?

Did they know that the most prevalent collective fear from disabled people is loss of agency and independence?

Institutional housing

Are they aware that mass institutionalization and segregation of people with disabilities — including blind people — persisted in Newfoundland and Labrador well into the 1980s?

Did they think about how there are fears about how that history, combined with a national housing crisis, could force people who need special housing back into institutional settings?

Do they not know that something else is perfectly legal now in Canada?

In June 2021 the Canadian legislation governing medical assistance in dying — also known as MAID — was expanded to include persons with disabilities. We now hold the macabre distinction of being the only people in the country who do not have to have a terminal illness or a foreseeable death arising from the disability to access medically assisted suicide.

MAID has been accessed by disabled people, and the people who chose death cited unbearable pain, unbearable poverty, or both, as their reasons for their decision.

We live in a country where the solution to disability poverty is not financial support but assisted dying.

So perhaps this tiny fragment of disabled reality may explain our fear of a dystopian disability future that's looking eerily like the segregated, warehouse-y existence of our uncomfortably recent past.

How is what council has done any different, save for a different cast of characters on a smaller, darker stage?

Council may assuage their collective conscience, finding justification in the shelter of an unjust law, but they are scaring the bejeebers out of the rest of us, and here's what they failed to foresee: that distilled in Shirley, so many of us see ourselves, our mothers, grandmothers, neighbours, and yes, even strangers — and we are outraged.

Anthony Germain/CBC
Anthony Germain/CBC

The first time I saw an image of Shirley Cox, it grabbed me by the heart.

She's seated in her wheelchair, in a posture of quiet dignity.

Twelve weeks later, on Monday I saw a woman stripped of her security, her safety, her everything, struggling with despair and confusion and the exhaustion of hanging on to the little dignity they left her.

Shirley Cox has been living this nightmare for more than three months, and rather than protect her they traumatized her.

I do not believe residents of this city support what council has done. It is a violation of our community values and an affront to our culture of kindness, care, and mutual support.

We will not look away.

Let's show them that we will not tolerate this course of action, to stop the trauma and repair this situation immediately. They used their authority to shatter the life of a vulnerable senior. It's time to remind them that their political futures rests in the hands of the residents of St. John's.

The rate of disability in N.L. is not static. It is rising rapidly and will continue to do so well into the future. We have the highest rate of type 2 diabetes in the country which in and of itself is a statistical indicator of rising numbers of people living with sight loss, lower limb neuropathy and other disabilities.

Council promises a happy, healthy city where seniors can age in place.

Speak for Shirley.

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