Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC)’s $106 million in litigation spending has raised flags in Ottawa and with the Chiefs of Ontario.
It was revealed last November that AANDC spent $106 million in legal fees for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the most of any federal department.
Canada Revenue Agency was a distant second on the list, spending about $66 million in legal fees for the same period.
“Revenue Canada spends about $66 million a year and our trustee, the department of Indian Affairs or AANDC, spends $106 million a year fighting against us on our rights,” said Regional Chief Stan Beardy. “That is the department that is supposed to enhance and assist us to make sure that there’s implementation on Section 35 (of the Constitution Act, 1982), but they’re spending so much money fighting our rights.”
Beardy feels the issue is related to the question of ownership of the lands and resources across Canada.
“They know if Section 35 were to be applied and implemented, it would become very clear that lands and resources do belong to us and as far as the Canadian Constitution is concerned, Canada does not have any inherent rights,” Beardy said. “So what they’re doing is they’re fighting us on this to gain some foothold and some rights against us through their legal system.”
Beardy said the federal government’s efforts do not make sense considering the poor conditions in many First Nations.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling, our schools are falling apart, water plants and everything else,” Beardy said. “Yet they spend so much money fighting against us.”
The litigation spending was first raised in January by MP Carolyn Bennett, who noted that AANDC’s litigation was almost twice as high as the second highest, Revenue Canada.
“What’s so upsetting is it seems to be sending a message to people that instead of giving them what they deserve and what the policy says, that they will see them in court and spend money,” Bennett said. “Then when they lose in court, as in this case with the youth with a severe disability, they will even appeal the decision of the court.”
Bennett was referring to Jeremy Meawasige, an Aboriginal teenager from Pictou Landing, a Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia.
Meawasige lives with cerebral palsy, autism, spinal curvature and a debilitating accumulation of spinal fluid in the brain. His mother, who had been his primary care giver, suffered a stroke in 2000.
Bennett said the federal court has already told the federal government that they are obligated to pay for Meawasige’s support, about $3,800 per month, but the government is appealing that decision.
Bennett said AANDC has spent more than $200,000 in litigation against Meawasige and his mother.
“In this situation, the child and his mother, also with a disability, live on a reserve,” Bennett said. “It should be just absolutely straight forward that those costs get covered. But instead of that, the government is appealing a court directive to pay.”
AANDC did not reply specifically to the case cited by Bennett. Instead, an AANDC official referred to a backgrounder on AANDC’s legal fees, which states: “in areas like Section 35 rights, we are charting new territory and have to rely on our court system heavily given our democratic system. Supreme Court of Canada decisions in a series of cases have served to clarify and determine the scope and content of these Aboriginal rights.”
The backgrounder said not all of AANDC’s legal costs are related to defending litigation, but a chart in the backgrounder indicated that $73.3 million was spent on justice lawyer costs for advisory litigation services and $30.1 million was spent on contracted lawyers.
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