Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaq welfare fight with federal government given new life

A 51-year-old document discovered in Canada's national archives is giving new life to a Mi'kmaq legal fight with the federal government over social assistance benefits.

Ottawa has been fighting with Mi'kmaq bands in the Maritimes over welfare rates since 2011

Naiomi Metallic is the lawyer representing 26 Mi'kmaq bands in their fight with the federal government over welfare rates. (CBC)

A 51-year-old document discovered in Canada's national archives is giving new life to a Mi'kmaq legal fight with the federal government over social assistance benefits.

The battle began in 2011 when the Harper government tried to impose a change on social assistance rates on Mi'kmaq reserves in the Maritimes and demanded parity with provincial programs.

This change would have resulted in a 40 to 60 per cent reduction in rates, which the bands say would have caused extreme hardship.

Twenty-six Mi'kmaq bands pooled their resources and asked for a federal judicial review. The case worked its way through the legal system, but the bands lost in front of the Federal Court of Appeal. 

A game-changing document

However, a 1964 document from the federal Indian Affairs Branch to all the regional directors about the welfare program has been discovered by a post-doctoral student in the national archives in Ottawa.

The document disputes the federal government's argument that the band welfare programs were always meant to match provincial programs.

The document, which dates from when the program was conceived, says: "This will involve examination and adaptation of provincial regulations to our own particular situation."

The lawyer acting on behalf of the bands calls this document a "game changer."

"I think it completely overturns the reasoning, the factual basis of the Federal Court of Appeal decision," said Naiomi Metallic. 

"I don't think the court could have come to the conclusion it did. And I don't think that the government can any longer say, 'Oh, our authority was just to apply and to directly align with provincial rates.' Clearly, it's not."

In light of this latest development, Metallic says the bands want to reopen discussions or go back to court.

CBC News has reached out to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, but has not heard back.

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