By Stephanie Taylor
THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA-First Nations chiefs have endorsed a revised multi-billion-dollar settlement for children and families harmed by Ottawa’s underfunding of on-reserve child and family services.
Chiefs gathered for a special meeting of the Assembly of First Nations passed a motion Tuesday supporting the new deal, which includes an extra $3 billion from Ottawa and increases the total compensation package to $23 billion.
Before the vote, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, addressed chiefs to say she hopes this settlement marks the final step in the battle First Nations children have been waging.
The assembly and Blackstock’s organization had jointly launched the 2007 human-rights complaint that sparked the years-long legal battle with Ottawa.
“I never want to see our kids victimized again,” said Blackstock.
In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of the claimants’ position that Ottawa’s underfunding of on-reserve child welfare services amounted to discrimination.
The tribunal also agreed that Ottawa too narrowly applied Jordan’s Principle, which holds that First Nations children should not be denied access to public services when it is unclear which level of government is responsible for paying for them. The legally enshrined principle is meant to ensure access to supports ranging from school supplies to medical equipment.
Three years later, in 2019, the tribunal ordered the federal government to pay $40,000 in compensation to First Nations families and kids who were wrongfully separated as result of its underfunding, and who were unable to access supplies they needed because of how it applied Jordan’s Principle.
Two class-action lawsuits, including one filed by the Assembly of First Nations, were brought against Ottawa.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government appealed the finding with the Federal Court. It upheld the tribunal’s ruling.
Ottawa announced in fall 2021 that negotiations were underway with the assembly to settle the suits and compensation order.
Those talks ultimately resulted in Ottawa agreeing last year to spend $20 billion on reforming the child-welfare system and another
$20 billion on compensation. At $40 billion, that agreement represented the largest ever settled by Canada.
The historic deal was thrown into question last year after the tribunal rejected the proposed settlement, stating concerns that not all eligible claimants would receive the $40,000 in compensation.
But as chiefs gathered this week in Ottawa, the assembly announced that further negotiations had resulted in a revised settlement agreement, which would include compensation for 13,000 more children and other amendments that it felt would satisfy the tribunal’s concerns.
Included in the additional $3 billion parties secured from Ottawa was $1 billion to fund interest accumulated on the $40,000 payments, Blackstock said.
“Many of your children and young people will be receiving $40,000 plus, because they’ve been waiting a long time and they shouldn’t be penalized for that.”
Blackstock added that kids won’t receive compensation until they reach the age of majority, and until then, their money will be placed in a trust.
Cindy Woodhouse, a regional chief from Manitoba who led the file for the assembly, said Tuesday the revisions were the “best possible” outcome for the 300,000 children and families who will be eligible for compensation.
“We are closer than ever,” she said.
The proposed new settlement must be brought before the tribunal for approval, and then receive another green light from the Federal Court.
Woodhouse said she hopes the matter goes before the tribunal no later than this summer, and to the Federal Court by early next year at the latest.
“Funds will start to flow shortly thereafter,” she said.
In their endorsement vote, First Nations chiefs also called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make a “formal and meaningful”
apology to the plaintiffs and victims.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2023.