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Ottawa's legal bills mount over aboriginal teen's bid for care

Federal government's legal bill equal to almost 3 years of disabled teen's care

By Karina Roman, CBC News

The federal government's legal bills to fight a Nova Scotia woman who is seeking care for her severely disabled teen would have paid for almost three years of his care, CBC News has learned.

Documents obtained through access to information reveal the government has already spent nearly $200,000 in its fight to cap what it will pay towards the cost of caring for Jeremy Meawasige.

The aboriginal teenager, who lives on the Pictou Landing reserve in Nova Scotia, suffers from cerebral palsy, autism, spinal curvature and hydrocephalus, a debilitating accumulation of spinal fluid in the brain.

His mother, Maurina Beadle, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2010, is seeking the same level of care that the province would provide to an aboriginal child off reserve.

Because Meawasige lives on a reserve, his care is the responsibility of the federal government.

The Federal Court agreed with her last April when it ruled that the government was wrong to cover only a fraction of the costs to care for Meawasige.

The federal government chose to appeal that ruling.

Paul Champ, the lawyer who is representing Beadle, told CBC News while he isn't surprised to see the government take the case to court, the amount of money it will spend would be better spent paying for Meawasige's care.

"The federal government is spending far too much money trying to deny him home care than it would cost just to provide him with the services that he needs," Champ said.

The government has said it is willing to pay up to $2,200 a month for Meawasige's care, but the cost of his needs have been evaluated at closer to $6,000 a month.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, told CBC News that Meawasige's mother isn't asking for more than she is entitled to under the law.

"It's not about giving First Nations children more services than other kids, it's about giving them the same thing."

Under a 2005 agreement, Jordan's Principle, First Nations children are entitled to receive the public assistance they need, regardless of jurisdictional fights between levels of government over who should pay.

Documents Blackstock obtained under access to information show that the bureaucrats behind the decision to cap Meawasige's care payments were nominated in 2011 by a director general within Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada for an award based on the work they had done on their implementation of Jordan's Principle. The team won the award.

In an email to CBC News, Beadle said she will not stop until Jordan's Principle is fully implemented.

"When I heard [the appeal] was granted, I said to myself, 'I guess we're going for round two.' We'll win once again."

Minister's office responds

"It's disappointing that the Government of Canada will spend money fighting a mother getting services for her children and using that amount of money, which would have gone to the child in the first place," Blackstock said.

The Office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt sent a written statement to CBC News.

"Our government treats taxpayers’ money with the utmost respect," the statement said.

"We believe that litigation should be the last resort. Where litigation is necessary, the government seeks to reconcile the interests of all Canadians. We will continue to work to reconcile the interests of all Canadians while respecting taxpayer dollars."

In its appeal, the government is asking that if it wins, Beadle and the Pictou Landing First Nation pay the government's legal costs.

The federal government is sending a clear message, Beadle's lawyer said.

"It sends a message that you better not think about bringing a case against the federal government or if you do, you better buckle up because it's going to be a multi-year and very expensive fight," Champ said.

Other cases racking up big bills

CBC News has obtained other documents through access to information that show the government has high legal bills in two other headline-making cases.

Ottawa has spent nearly $4.5 million on its ongoing fight before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal about how much it pays for child welfare services for children on reserves.

It has also racked up a legal bill of more than $9 million in its nearly 15-year battle over whether Métis should be deemed "Indians" under the Constitution.

"They say they want to do cost savings to taxpayers ... well here's a prime example of where they could start," said Betty Ann Lavalée, national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, in an interview with CBC News.

"Instead of spending all this money ... sit down and negotiate. It's a lot cheaper."

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