By the time Lindsay Ambeault pays her monthly hydro bill, there’s barely enough left to cover the cost of feeding her family.
“You feel helpless because all you do is struggle to keep your bills paid,” said Ambeault, 38, who lives in Sault Saint-Marie, Ont.
The problem has reached a breaking point for the family. The day after Ambeault spoke with Global News this week, her hydro was cut off. It has since been restored, but only after she managed to scrape together the money for the $160 reconnection fee.
Julien Cote, Ambeault’s husband and the father of her two youngest children, including two-and-a half-year-old Jack, who was diagnosed with both autism and clubfoot, believes the government isn’t doing nearly enough to assist families like his.
“It’s like survival mode,” said Cote, describing how his family manages to make it through each month without being disconnected. “It’s become a part of everyday life.”
Ontario’s energy minister, Glenn Thibeault, is telling families across the province to conserve and cut back on their electricity use in order to save on hydro bills. But as Global News has discovered, thousands of families in Ontario are doing exactly that, only to find their hydro services disconnected.
READ MORE: 7 ways to lower your hydro bill this summer
Ambeault says she’s already doing everything she can to conserve. Her family showers every other day. They turn off all appliances. They heat with a high-efficiency gas furnace. Yet their bills, which they say have become relentless, continue to increase.
In the four years since moving into their home, Ambeault says their hydro rates have risen from an average of $180 a month to more than $450.
“We try to average about $200 every two weeks,” said Ambeault, explaining how little money she has left over to feed her family of six. “But now we’ve had to cut that down a little bit, to maybe $150.” At times, said Ambeault, she’s had as little as $80 to spend on groceries for two weeks. While her children eat well, Ambeault and her husband live on french fries and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Family responds to minister
Despite admitting more needs to be done to assist families, and with the knowledge that nearly 60,000 households were disconnected from their electricity services last year, Ontario’s energy minister is reluctant to describe the province’s high energy costs as a crisis.
“I think it’s important for people to understand there’s a cost associated with getting the power from the generating station,” said Thibeault. “Every time someone turns on the light switch, or plugs something in, there’s a cost associated with that.”
It’s a reality people in rural Ontario understand all too well. Global News has heard from hundreds of families over the past week doing everything they can to save on energy costs – including turning off electricity at the breakers and not running air conditioners on even the hottest summer days. Ambeault says if the minister doesn’t think this is a crisis, he should come visit them for a few days.
As for Ambeault’s husband, he says he can’t understand why the minister doesn’t see that initiatives like the Ontario Energy Support Program aren’t working.
“It’s like they’re telling us you should be able to afford it with what you do,” said Cote. “It’s like a slap in the face.”
At the request of Global News, Cote and Ambeault tried to register for the OESP. They did not qualify. With both working full time, their income is too high for many of the programs aimed at helping families ward off disconnection.
“We have to work opposite shifts to limit baby sitters,” said Ambeault. “We’re never home together as a family. Everyone wants to sit down and eat at the dinner table – well that doesn’t happen.”
Fearing they’ll have to choose between hydro bills and medical treatment for their son Jack, Ambeault and Cote are applying for any subsides they can – hoping it won’t come to such a choice.
“I think one person getting disconnected is a crisis, let alone 59,000,” said Ambeault. “No one should be cut off from their utilities.”