Reconciliation act isn't just 'window dressing,' Metis Federation argues in call for judicial review

The Manitoba Metis Federation says the Path to Reconciliation Act is a "game changer" that could push the province to reinstate a funding cut to its health department, court heard on Wednesday.

Organization asks for review of $650K funding cut to health services in potentially precedent-setting case

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, told CBC News in 2016 that the province's decision to cancel funding for a Métis health program will mean death and sickness. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Manitoba Metis Federation says the Manitoba government's Path to Reconciliation Act is a "game changer" that could push the province to reinstate a funding cut to the federation's health department, a Manitoba court heard on Wednesday.

MMF lawyer Murray Trachtenberg told Chief Justice Glenn Joyal at Court of Queen's Bench that for Indigenous people in Manitoba the legislation is not just "feel good commentary that doesn't mean anything" — it is actionable.

In 2016, the federation applied for a judicial review of the province's decision to cut $650,000 in health funding for the MMF, which the organization used to hire five people offering health-care services. 

The MMF has said it never received an explanation as to why the funding ended and the government did not give it fair warning that the move was coming.

"To offset health-care costs through false austerity measures such as this, they are instead going to be paying for these cuts with the lives of Métis people," MMF president David Chartrand said in a news release at the time.

"We're going to hold them accountable for this, and we're going to hold Canada accountable for this, because we do matter — and they know full well that there is a health-care crisis for the Métis in the province of Manitoba."

Reviews of budget decisions rare

But it's very rare for a judicial review to be granted when it comes to provincial budget decisions.

In court, the judge explained he had to consider how The Path to Reconciliation Act, as well as the Manitoba Métis Policy — which provides a framework for province's approach to its relationship with Métis people and the MMF — have affected the situation.

"What really does The Path to Reconciliation mean when it comes to Métis?" Joyal asked.

The Path to Reconciliation Act — which passed unanimously in March 2016, with provincial election campaigns imminent — says the Government of Manitoba is committed to reconciliation and will be "guided by the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the principles set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

The Manitoba Metis Federation said the decision to cut the funding without explanation or warning, particularly since it affects health care, doesn't comply with the principals of the act.

"Did they actually look at any of this or is it window dressing?" Trachtenberg asked the court.

Decision could open floodgates: judge

Justice Joyal voiced concerns about how his eventual decision could potentially open the floodgates for judicial review when it comes to budgetary matters involving Indigenous people moving forward. 

Government of Manitoba lawyer Sean Boyd said budgetary decisions are not reviewable and it was a decision that was ultimately subject to treasury board approval. 

The act is not intended to be used for judicial review, Boyd told the court. Instead, the government completes an end-of-year report that goes before the legislature, and which shows how ministers are moving toward reconciliation goals.

Trachtenberg responded by quoting Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen in the third reading of the act in 2016 — when the New Democrats were in power — saying "it can't just be talk, there has to be action with it. It will be incumbent on future government."

Justice Joyal reserved his decision for a later date.