Social Assistance Reform in Mi’kmaq Communities of Nova Scotia: A disaster waiting to happen

By: Dr. Fred Wein

At a time when many Canadians are motivated to bring about fundamental change in their relationship with First Nations and other Aboriginal peoples, an initiative from the Harper government carries on in the worst traditions of the past.

At issue is policy dealing with how social assistance is provided on reserve. The Harper government has unilaterally decreed that such policy must now exactly mirror what the Province does in providing income support to other Nova Scotians. This will seriously increase the hardship being faced by up to half of the adult population and their dependents on reserve, as welfare cheques are cut for many and others cease to be eligible.

On the face of it, the policy might sound reasonable. Why, after all, should recipients living on reserve receive benefits that are, on average, higher than for recipients living elsewhere in the province? The answer is two-fold. First, conditions on reserve are different. Housing, for example, is in much worse shape and a single home may house multiple families. These conditions translate into higher costs for shelter and utility costs – much higher than the monthly ceiling the province allows. The communities are also different culturally which translates, for example, into special consideration for elders and children, provisions that would be ineligible under provincial policy.

Secondly, provincial social assistance recipients qualify for a wide range of programs and services that supplement low benefit levels. For its part, the federal government provides only a limited number of such programs on reserve and reserve residents typically do not have access to provincial programs located off reserve. When Mi’kmaq leaders ask if the federal government will make up the shortfall, they are met with silence.

What is the rationale for the new approach? It seems to be ideologically driven, the idea being to provide the most limited level of support possible in the hopes that welfare recipients will then be induced to find employment, thereby becoming self-reliant. If the welfare budget is cut back, savings could be applied to active support measures that would help people make the transition from welfare to work. Yet, the Mi’kmaq social assistance population is not homogeneous, and less than half are persons who might be described as “able-bodied unemployed”. Our data shows that the remainder is made up of those who are employed, waiting for seasonal jobs to kick in, the retired, those in poor health, stay-at-home parents, and students.

The new policy also seems to assume that recipients, when pushed into the labour market, will readily find job opportunities waiting for them and that they will be competitive in job applications with all the other Nova Scotians who are lining up for work. Federal job training and job readiness programs are available but they are a long way from overcoming the barriers that social assistance recipients face in the labour market, including the fact that a majority have less than high school levels of education.

It is clear that no one is prepared to make the transition to a new approach, least of all the federal government which has yet to provide software, training, manuals, and ancillary programs and policies to provide the framework required. By way of comparison, when the Province has undertaken a major restructuring of assistance, it planned for a transition period of several years to ensure that the change went as smoothly as possible. Thus the first imperative for the new federal government is to signal that, whatever changes are to take place, there needs to be adequate planning and preparation. It would be irresponsible to push ahead under current circumstances, especially since the social assistance population, among all reserve residents, is the most vulnerable.

The second imperative is for the new federal government to sit down with Mi’kmaq and provincial representatives to talk about how to reshape social assistance on reserve, since no one is thrilled with the status quo, either. Indeed, the Mi’kmaq leadership has proposed such a dialogue to negotiate a self-government agreement in “social” that would have the Mi’kmaq themselves design the policies and programs that would be most suitable for their people, as they have done to wide acclaim in the area of education.

That would represent a real step toward reconciliation.

Fred Wien is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University, where he served previously as Director of the Maritime School of Social Work. He was seconded as a senior staff member to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the period 1992-96. He has undertaken research on the social assistance issue for Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn, the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative.