The Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear an appeal of a court case launched by chiefs in all three Maritime provinces over cuts to social assistance rates in their First Nation communities.
The high court also dismissed the chiefs’ request for a stay of the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to allow the federal government to proceed with its plan to claw back welfare on reserve.
The Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss both requests were issued Thursday morning. As with all leave to appeal requests, the Supreme Court did not give a reason for dismissing the request.
Naiomi Metallic, lawyer for the Maritime chiefs, expressed her disappointment at the high court’s decision.
“To me, this case was about the accountability of the Government of Canada towards First Nations people and delivery of essential services,” Metallic explained Thursday.
“I really thought that the court would want to say, ‘Yeah, there needs to be some limits there and we’re going to deal with that,’” she said.
In a news release issued late Thursday morning, Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq chiefs also expressed their disappointment.
“Our priority has always been our Mi’kmaq community members who are on social assistance and are surviving on very little money,” Eskasoni Chief Denny said in the news release.
Chiefs launch legal action in 2012
In 2012, Mi’kmaq and Maliseet leaders in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island applied to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review after the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development informed the leaders of its plan to implement provincial social assistance rates to First Nation communities.
The move by AANDC, the chiefs’ legal team argued, would mean substantial cuts to the amount of welfare income clients receive.
Currently, people who receive social assistance in First Nation communities in the Maritimes receive a basic monthly rate which includes shelter, heat and electricity. The basic rate increases for clients with children.
Under AANDC’s plan, that monthly rate would be reduced to just a basic monthly rate and a small amount for shelter only. Clients with children under 17 years of age would not receive an additional amount of income for them.
Lawyers for the chiefs argued the department’s decision to apply provincial social assistance rates was unconstitutional, made without meaningful consultation with the affected First Nation communities and failed to meet the requirements of procedural fairness.
The lawyers also argued against AANDC’s position that applying provincial rates would create equality to anyone receiving social assistance whether they lived in a First Nation community or not.
The chiefs’ legal team argued that provincial rates would result in social assistance clients, especially ones with children, receiving less money and create even greater inequality.
In 2013, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the federal government did not properly consult with the affected First Nation communities in the Maritime provinces before applying social assistance rates which would result in cuts to social assistance.
The federal government appealed the Federal Court decision to the Federal Court of Appeal, which overturned the initial decision in its ruling in January.
The Maritime chiefs then sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in March.
Metallic hopes Liberal government takes different approach to social assistance
In May, then AANDC Minister Bernard Valcourt sent letters to First Nation communities in the Maritimes informing them that provincial social assistance rates will be applied to First Nation communities beginning April 1, 2016.
Metallic says she is hopeful that, despite the leave to appeal request being dismissed, the newly elected Liberal government will choose not to move forward with these changes to social assistance on reserves.
“It was very much driven by the Harper Conservatives and their vision, whatever that is, of what they wanted to happen on social assistance on reserves,” Metallic said.
“But that may not be the same vision that Trudeau and the Liberals have.”
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