Mi’kmaw chiefs optimistic proposed changes to on-reserve welfare will be dropped

Trina Roache
APTN National News
Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny says while the news is unofficial he is expecting an announcement from the Liberals at the Assembly of First Nations meetings this week in Ottawa that the federal government will drop proposed changes to welfare on-reserve.

Denny said he can’t comment other than what he put on Facebook. On Friday he posted, “Tonight we got news from a government source that the social changes will be delayed indefinitely. We are waiting for more details and an official announcement.”

Denny said he won’t celebrate until the news “comes from the minister.”

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett will meet with the Mi’kmaw chiefs on Thursday at the AFN meetings in Gatineau, QC. Though word may come sooner in the week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to address the AFN on Tuesday.

The Mi’kmaq fought a four-year legal battle against the former Conservative government over its decision to mirror provincial welfare policies on reserve.

The Liberals’ change of heart comes after news of a policy document that supported the Mi’kmaw position was found recently in the National Archives.

Mi’kmag Lawyer Naiomi Metallic said the 1964 document outlines “that it’s not going to be possible to adopt all aspects of provincial policy and it goes on to say we need to adapt it to our circumstances. And that’s really key. It proves we were right. We were right along.”

Though the chiefs won at the lower level court, they lost at the Federal Court of Appeal in January of 2015. It agreed Ottawa was only following policy. In October, the Supreme Court of Canada said it wouldn’t hear the case.

The Mi’kmaq were out of legal options and hoped to lobby the new Liberal government.

Millbrook Chief Bob Gloade also posted on Facebook, “Once the official announcement comes from the Minister things will look promising. Lots of hard work done by our legal team and lobbying government officials over the last several weeks is beginning to pay off as liberal government is showing a willingness to work together.”

The Mi’kmaq have argued all along that the welfare changes on reserve would cause hardship because bands would get 30 per cent less funding for social assistance.

But welfare works differently on-reserve, they argued. Block funding is used to pay for programs and actuals, like social housing, rent and utilities. Court documents showed that government was aware there would be negative impacts on housing and a risk that more kids would end up taken into care.

Though the policy document has given the chiefs new hope, Denny was frustrated that Ottawa didn’t include it in the court documents submitted in the first place.

“We can’t understand why it wasn’t produced,” said Denny when the chiefs first found out about the document. “It’s very discouraging because we put a lot of time and money into fighting this in court. We just want to be treated fairly. We were right all this time.”

As word spreads on social media, there’s a sense of relief among the Mi’kmaq.

Denny looks forward to meeting with Bennett. He’s optimistic and said, “The new government seems open minded.”

No one from Indigenous Affairs could be reached for comment.

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