First Nations' income assistance to be slashed by court ruling, chiefs worry

The chiefs of P.E.I.'s First Nations bands are worried about big losses of income in their communities after a Supreme Court decision last week.

Calculation of income by household an issue for First Nations

Lennox Island Chief Matilda Ramjattan (Laura Chapin/CBC)

The chiefs of P.E.I.'s First Nations bands are worried about big losses of income in their communities after a Supreme Court decision last week.

The case was connected to a change made by the outgoing Conservative federal government in 2011 for all reserves in the Maritimes. Implementation was delayed by court challenges that ended when the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the case.

Starting April 1, people living on-reserve on P.E.I. will have to meet provincial criteria to qualify for federal income assistance. A lawyer involved in the case estimates as many as 40 per cent of on-reserve people on P.E.I. who've qualified in the past will no longer be eligible.

Lennox Island Chief Matilda Ramjattan said one issue in her community is lots of homes have more than one family living in them because of the housing shortage. Because of the way the province calculates household income, she expects about 20 people will lose their income assistance.

"We're trying what we can with what we have, but these other impacts, it's just like, you take one step forward and three back. It's frustrating," said Ramjattan.

'Hardship for people'

Abegweit Chief Brian Francis estimates 120 people in his communities could be knocked off assistance altogether, and another 120 will lose income assistance while waiting for EI, something that was possible under the federal program. 

Abegweit First Nation Chief Brian Francis says any land is significant for the Mi'kmaq Confederacy. (Laura Chapin/CBC)

Francis said it's not unusual for up to 80 per cent of the people on his reserves to be on income assistance from January to April, because of the Island's seasonal economy.

Chiefs around the Maritimes are concerned about the social impact of the loss of income — in particular more suicides, drug use, crime and children in care.

"It can be a considerable, you know, hardship for people, and because of that you don't know what can happen," said Francis.

"It's not necessarily going to be good for a community, that's for sure."

Ramjattan and Francis are both hopeful the new Trudeau government will reverse the decision after being sworn in.

In an email to CBC News Friday, Aboriginal Affairs said, "The Government of Canada will continue to work with First Nations in the Maritime Provinces to implement provincial rates and eligibility criteria."

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