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‘All or nothing’: Utility cuts off Toronto senior, now powerless in heat wave

Click to play video: 'Toronto senior forced to live with no electricity in heatwave after hydro bill goes into arrears'
Toronto senior forced to live with no electricity in heatwave after hydro bill goes into arrears
WATCH: A 74-year-old Toronto woman is struggling to keep herself cool during a heat wave almost two months after her electrical utility company cut off her power for non-payment. Maxine Stirling Dawe says she wants a payment plan but claims that’s not been offered. Seán O’Shea reports.

Maxine Stirling Dawe tries to stay cool in her one-bedroom apartment but it’s not easy.

With no power in the midst of a summer heat wave, the stifling heat is a challenge for the 74-year-old Toronto woman.

Toronto Hydro shut off her electricity in early May because her utility bill was not paid in full.

Stirling Dawe says she recognizes the importance of keeping her account in good standing and has always tried to do so until recently.

“Oh, everybody does, it’s part of life,” Stirling Dawe told Global News in an interview.

The single senior, who lives alone, fell behind in her bill payments over a period of several months. She says she gave money to support her adult son and, as a consequence, the bill ballooned: it’s now more than $1,400.

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So, in April, Toronto Hydro served a disconnection notice. She says she was lying on a stretcher in the emergency department at Sunnybrook Hospital when she received a phone call from the utility asking for permission to enter her apartment building to deliver the formal document.

Soon after, the electrical utility cut off her power. She says she’s been trying to get reconnected ever since.

“They wouldn’t give me any chance — they said they wanted all or nothing,” Stirling Dawe said.

Toronto Hydro declined to comment specifically on her case, instead telling Global News: “we’re committed to supporting our customers in any way we can to help avoid disconnection.”

“We also work with our customers to set up an Arrears Payment Agreement to help them make monthly instalments toward their arrears balance,” Toronto Hydro corporate spokesperson Daniel McNeil said in an email.

Stirling Dawe told Global News she was not able to access a financial assistance program intended to assist low-income clients.

Toronto Hydro says it does not disconnect customers in arrears between Nov. 15 and April 30 because that could leave customers at risk in cold weather.

“Something we’re very concerned about with the changing climate — heat can be just as deadly to people as extreme cold,” said Theresa McClenaghan, executive director and lawyer at the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

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“We do have rules to protect people in the winter from disconnection because it’s Canada. We don’t think it’s a good idea to allow people to go without electricity in the winter. We’re advocating that those same protections should apply in the summer because of the extreme heat,” McClenaghan told Global News.

The Ontario Energy Board, the province’s regulator of electricity and natural gas, says it is “deeply committed to protecting the interests of energy consumers in relation to their dealings with the energy companies that we regulate.”

A spokesperson told Global News it does so by “making and enforcing comprehensive customers service rules that utilities must follow.”

The spokesperson wrote in an email that “generally, a customer must be provided with payments options, including an equal monthly payment plan.”

For two months, Stirling Dawe has sought respite from the heat by going to a public library, a pharmacy or anywhere else nearby with air conditioning.

Although the electricity in her apartment is not connected, she says the building superintendent allowed her to plug in an extension cord in the hallway to power a fan and recharge batteries during the daytime.

She became emotional when talking about her predicament, which won’t likely end until she can satisfy Toronto Hydro’s demands.

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“I always paid my bills,” she said, wiping away tears.

Lawyer Theresa McClenaghan, whose legal clinic assists low-income people and disadvantaged communities, points out the importance of ensuring seniors like Stirling Dawe have power in their homes year-round.

“Electricity in Canada is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. In fact, energy has been defined in some circumstances as a human right.”

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