First Nations in Eastern Canada have won a court injunction against the federal government preventing a plan to impose on-reserve social assistance cuts.
Ottawa had planned to impose a welfare program that would harmonize First Nations social assistance with that of the rest of the eastern provinces beginning April 1.
But on March 30, Federal Court Judge Sandra Simpson issued an injunction, putting a temporary hold on planned cuts.
The injunction comes after the Elsipogtog First Nation, a community of 3,000 in New Brunswick, filed a notice of application to the Federal Court for an injunction to delay the cuts until the case is heard in court.
In her report, Judge Simpson pointed to evidence proving that there were efforts on behalf of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) to consult with eastern First Nations regarding the implementation of the new policy, however, it was the lack of meaningful consultation with First Nations about the details and merits of the policy before it was developed that helped influence her decision to issue the injunction.
Judge Simpson also ruled that the plan, which proposed to cut welfare rates for First Nations by as much as 50 per cent, could have a distinctly negative impact.
“In my view, the estimated decline in income assistance rates under the policy and the potential for ineligibility will cause emotional and psychological stress amounting to irreparable harm for some recipients,” Judge Simpson stated.
“Individuals who are reliant on income assistance are especially vulnerable even to small changes in the resources available to meet their basic needs and, for this reason, I have concluded that the applicants have demonstrated irreparable harm,” she concluded.
Those in support of the injunction are applauding the judge’s decision.
“I feel great, said Jesse John Simon, former chief of the Elsipogtog First Nation. Simon was representing the band when they filed the injunction.
“[The government] have been imposing a lot of sanctions on us without our input and without us at the table,” he said.
“It’s really good that justice did prevail, especially with the poorest of the poor who normally don’t get to be heard,” Simon added.
The road to the injunction began last year when the Elsipogtog Nation was informed that cuts to on-reserve welfare were imminent.
“We had heard in April 2011 that the federal government was going to impose new social assistance rules on us without any sort of meaningful consultation.”
Simon said the new policy was to take effect in November 2011. But First Nations rallied together urging the government to reconsider enforcing such harsh changes without consultation.
Ottawa agreed to postpone the cuts until April 1, 2012.
That’s when the Elsipogtog First Nation filed the court application.
Looking back, Simon claims that the government was going to enforce the new welfare system regardless of consultation with First Nations.
“It really didn’t matter what we did, they were going to do it April 1,” he said.
In an email dated April 20, Michelle Perron, spokesperson for AANDC, confirmed that the ministry filed an appeal against the injunction on April 16.
“As outlined in Economic Action Plan 2012, our Government is committed to better aligning its on-reserve income assistance program with provincial systems through improved compliance with program requirements,” Perron wrote. “This is consistent with our commitment to fairness and transparency across the country,” she added.
Perron noted that the ministry’s goal was, in fact, to employ First Nations.
“This policy, along with active measures to transition First Nations to the workforce, will provide greater opportunities to participate in the Canadian economy,” she stated.
“We realize that a limited “transition” period is required for some First Nations.
The department is willing to work with First Nations to gain a more comprehensive understanding of their views on the potential impacts of provincial Income Assistance programs on First Nation recipients. This [plan] is consistent with the Government’s approach across the country to improve the effectiveness of the Income Assistance Program and ensure First Nations are well-positioned to be full participants in the Canadian economy,” Perron concluded.
But Simon claims that there are very few employment opportunities for members of his reserve. Further, if the new program goes through, First Nation members will face about $300 in cuts to their social assistance funding and will be required to manage the entirety of their monthly allowance alone rather than relying on the band to cover specific costs like shelter and hydro.
The changes concern Simon.
“Some of my people can’t manage money,” he said quietly. “Through no fault of their own,” he added. Simon said residential schools had severe impacts on some band members and many never learned to budget. Others are too caught in the web of addiction to manage finances.
Simon said if the plan goes through the consequences could be “devastating.”
However, he believes the dispute is not only about funding.
“It’s not about us wanting to stay on welfare,” he said. “It’s about us being included in making policy,” he stated.”