Frances Bignell

Frances Bignell of Indian Brook would have seen social assistance payments drop significantly if the federal government changes were imposed. (CBC)

Maritime Mi'kmaq leaders have won a major legal victory against the government of Canada, one that could change how Ottawa treats First Nations across the country.

Federal Court Justice Andre Scott has quashed unilateral changes the federal government was trying to impose on how social assistance works on reserves.

The changes would have hurt people such as Frances Bignell of Indian Brook First Nation, who takes care of five children, including two foster kids.

"I would go from having a half-decent income to having $128 biweekly to feed five kids with," she said. "So it would have had a very serious negative impact on me and my family."

Earlier this year, a coalition of chiefs across the Maritimes won an injunction against the changes while the Federal Court considered the case.

The federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development had ordered the Mi'kmaq bands to bring their social assistance rates in line with provincial standards.

On Indian Brook a single parent with two children receives $293 in social assistance every two weeks. The proposed changes to federal rates would have cut that by 39 per cent.

The bands argued the changes are unfair because recipients on reserves can't benefit from provincial programs available in non-native communities.

And it turns out, the federal government ignored the law when it tried to force bands to bring social assistance rules in lockstep with provincial regulations.

Personal victory

In his decision, Scott said First Nations have a right to meaningful consultation on this issue. He said in this case the federal government made its decision before consultations were held.

The Federal Court ruling in favour of First Nations is a personal victory for Halifax Mi'kmaq lawyer Naiomi Metallic. She argues the government's changes to social assistance crossed an ethical line.

"They were knowingly impoverishing one of the poorest groups in Canadian society, and they knew that, but they were still going ahead with it," she said. "There's something wrong with that."

Scott said Aboriginal Affairs never assessed the effects of the changes, or collected hard data on how many people would lose their entitlement to social assistance as a result.

A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs said in an email the government "will be reviewing the ruling to determine next steps."