A federal court judge has issued an injunction that will temporarily prevent the federal government from reducing social assistance rates for First Nations in the Maritimes.
Ottawa wants to implement provincial rates and standards on First Nation reserves in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, which would mean less money for recipients.
But Justice Sandra Simpson granted the interlocutory injunction on March 30 until the matter can be heard in court.
In her 30-page decision, Simpson cited the absence of any consultation with First Nations communities about the policy or its implementation.
'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.' —Justice Sandra Simpson
She also noted the potential harm it could cause.
"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," she wrote.
"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."
Decision 'a miracle'
The former chief of the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, who led the fight, calls the decision a miracle.
"Well first of all, I wanted to go to the regional office in Amherst and dance in front of the office — just, you know, flip them the bird for trying to impose this ridiculous program on us," said Jesse Simon.
Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan planned to harmonize welfare rates for First Nations in the Maritimes with provincial rates for non-First Nations welfare recipients, which are among the lowest in the country.
The proposed changes, which were set to take effect on April 1, would have meant about $300 less a month for a single parent with two children, said Simon.
He said he has watched many of his people fight poverty, unemployment and substance abuse. When he heard about the planned welfare changes, he got angry and decided to fight.
Elsipogtog First Nation, New Brunswick's largest aboriginal community with a population of more than 3,000, filed an application to challenge the government's decision on behalf of First Nations across the province.
Lawyers argued the cuts would be devastating for the poorest members of the affected communities and needed to be challenged in Federal Court. The judge agreed.
"It was such great, great news," Simon said of the injunction. "Here we were, backed into a corner with almost no or little resources, almost no finances, almost no nothing, and we were smart enough to get our information together and fight what we knew we were talking about," he said.
"I mean this is just standing up to a bully and once you stand up to a bully and slap them in the face they back off real soon."
Many already struggling
Simon said he agrees the welfare system in his community needs changing, but not the way Ottawa has proposed. Many families are already struggling with the current welfare amounts, he said.
"I think even the non-native population continues to struggle with their welfare rates, which are the lowest in the country and then add that, minus another two or three hundred on a reserve, which is even worse.
"I mean, New Brunswick lives in what has the one of the top seven poorest postal codes in the country, Elsipogtog being one of them. And to take 200, 300 bucks away from a single mom — is that going to help the situation any? No. They're just not thinking straight."
Simon contends the changes would have a huge impact on families.
"The First Nations people wouldn't have access to all the programming that the people in the province did so basically it was just a matter of trying to squeeze the people off the reserves so they'll slowly make us all urban Indians and just get us lost in the general public."
People in the community agree.
"If the government would step in and create jobs for the people on all the reserves, sure they could take the welfare away from us," said Robert Julian. "But if they ain't going to support that economic development on every reserve, you know we're going to be in poverty."
Kelly Lamrock, one of lawyers representing the First Nations, is pleased with the judge's decision.
"There really has been a lack of care and consultation that could very well be a legal reason to overturn the decision," he said.
"And maybe more importantly that the harm they've been saying will happen to their communities is real.
"When you take very poor people and make them even more desperate, the effect is rarely that suddenly people get up and become college graduates tomorrow and go to work. The effect is that people simply become more and more desperate."
Government weighs right to appeal
The government will be reviewing the court's decision in the coming days to determine any next steps, Michelle Perron, spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada stated in an email.
Meanwhile, the government abide by the court's decision to grant interim relief, subject to its right to appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal, she said.
"The Government of Canada has always stated that income assistance rates should be consistent for all Canadians in each province," Perron said.
"As outlined last week 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.
"This is consistent with our commitment to fairness and transparency across the country," she said.