It is no secret that many First Nation communities are chronically underfunded in many areas critical to the health of community members: social assistance, health, housing, water, governance. The list goes on. In a recent meeting with a senior public servant who has worked within Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada for many years, I learned that since the 1969 White Paper the Federal Government has downloaded responsibility for delivery of many government programs onto small First Nation communities without providing the necessary level of resources. A situation that was hopeless from the beginning has been made worse by the effects of inflation as many First Nation communities have been receiving funding based on formulas that have not changed for decades. The results are evident across the nation: disease, poverty, lack of housing, violence and political instability.
This is a big issue and many people are concerned and working on it. One of them is Chief Andrea Paul, the recently elected Chief of Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia. She recently asked for a copy of the social assistance manual and received a document which had been prepared in 1994 – 18 years ago. It was then that it sunk home to her that social assistance rates have not changed for decades. She rightly points out that even the earned income allowance for social assistance recipients has been eroded over time. The maximum income allowed 20 years ago was $100 but in 1922 the minimum wage rate in Nova Scotia was $6.50/hr. In 2012 it is now $10.15. This means that people can now work less hours before their social assistance is affected. Chief Paul has taken on this cause and has already approached her counterparts in Nova Scotia at the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi’kmaq Chiefs.
Almost every act and decision of government is reviewable at some level by our independent and impartial courts in a process known as “judicial review”. Our courts can and have overturned government decisions if they were made in a way that was procedurally unfair or violated the equality or constitutional rights of any citizen or group of citizens, including members of our First Nations.
The time is long overdue for First Nations to challenge the chronic underfunding by taking legal action against the Federal government. In fact this is beginning to happen. In the Atlantic Provinces alone two cases have made headlines recently. In Pictou Landing Band Council et al v. Canada, Pictou Landing has challenged the level of Federal funding for in-home care of a severely disabled child. No decision has been rendered but details can be found at http://www.fncaringsociety.com/jordans-principle/legal.
In Simon et al. v. Canada the Federal Court of Canada granted an injunction against the Federal government prohibiting the government from implementing changes to the social assistance rules applicable to New Brunswick First Nations. The decision can be found here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/pdf/Simpson-J-Reasons.pdf. Congratulations to lawyers Kelly Lamrock and Naiomi Metallic for their efforts in that case.
More cases like these will be needed in order to force an end to the funding gap between Aboriginal communities and other Canadians. Court challenges will be inevitable as Chief Andrea Paul and others like her become increasingly fed up with the status quo.