Conservative Government Spends on Lawyers Over Disabled Youth

Hon. Carolyn Bennett

The federal government’s callous treatment of Jeremy Meawasige, an Aboriginal teenager from the Pictou Landing reserve is nothing less than shameful. This youth is living with cerebral palsy, autism, spinal curvature, and a debilitating accumulation of spinal fluid in the brain. His mother, who is his primary caregiver, suffered a stroke in 2010 and requires further assistance to care for Jeremy. But rather than federal government fulfilling its obligation to provide Jeremy’s desperately needed care, the Conservative government has spent more than $200,000 dragging him and his family through the courts.

Because of Jeremy’s multiple conditions he can only speak a few words, cannot walk unassisted and needs extensive personal care including dressing, feeding and other day to day tasks most take for granted. The federal court has already told the government that they are obligated to pay for this support, but the Conservative government is appealing that decision. They have shockingly decided to continue spending money on lawyers, rather than the roughly $3,800 per month of additional support that is needed to manage Jeremy’s multiple conditions. In fact, the money they have spent dragging Jeremy and his family through courts would have funded over two and a half years of care for Jeremy.

In 2007 the House of Commons unanimously passed Jordon’s Principle. Jordan River Anderson was a five year old First Nations child from Manitoba who died in hospital while various levels of government spent two years fighting over who should pay for his home based care. The principle, named in his honour, states that the government jurisdiction or department first contacted about needed services for a First Nations child pays immediately, and then sorts out which government(s) is/are responsible later. Despite the fact the Conservatives voted in support of Jordan’s Principle, their government has completely failed to implement this principle.

Unfortunately, this reflects the government's track record. After being shamed into voting for the parliamentary motion to develop a suicide prevention strategy, there was no follow up from the Conservatives. They also voted for the motion to support Shannen's Dream, and yet have flatly refused to deal with the unacceptable gaps in funding for child and family services on reserve versus off reserve. Instead, they have spent almost five million dollars fighting the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada in court to avoid paying for equal care.

Not only is the government spending millions of dollars on lawyers to sidestep its obligations to First Nations children, but in Jeremy’s case it is creating a chill by sending the message that pursuing your rights will be a very lengthy and costly fight. The appeal of Jeremy’s successful federal court decision includes a demand by the government for payment of their legal costs if they win that appeal. This sort of intimidation is simply appalling and undermines the honour of the Crown. What we all have to remember is that this is not about abstract legal arguments or numbers. These are real people, like Jeremy, who are dealing with tragic situations and need our help. And they are not looking for special treatment, but simply the same level of support available to non-Aboriginal people.

This is part of a disturbing pattern, rather than dealing with serious funding issues or infringements of Aboriginal rights the Conservative government's response has simply been "see you in court". Time and time again, the courts have sided with Aboriginal people. One would assume this would serve as a wakeup call for the government that their approach is just not working. Unfortunately it has not.

The latest Public Accounts show that the $106 million that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development spent on litigation during the last fiscal year was more than any other department and almost double the $66 million spent by the runner up, Canada Revenue Agency. Much of this $106 million would have been better spent on providing needed services rather than on lawyers. Further, it is appalling that this government puts a higher priority of fighting Aboriginal people in the courts than even going after tax cheats.

In the case of Jeremy Meawasige, the Conservative government must address this outright discrimination and provide the care he needs and is legally entitled to. But beyond this tragic case, the Conservatives need to rethink their entire approach to dealing with First Nations, Inuit and Metis. The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs must redirect the millions of dollars his department is spending on lawyers fighting advocates for Aboriginal children to ensuring these youth have the same services and opportunities as other children in Canada.

First elected in 1997, Dr. Bennett represents the riding of St. Paul’s in Toronto. She formerly served as the first ever Minster of State for Public Health and is currently Liberal critic for Aboriginal Affairs and Chair of the Liberal Women’s Caucus. As Aboriginal Affairs critic, her advocacy is focused on the "duty to consult" and ways to improve the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginals.