Indigenous advocates and survivors of Canada’s foster care system rallied in Vancouver Sunday on the eve of a landmark court ruling that could impact thousands of First Nations children across the country.
Federal judges on Monday are set to rule on whether to uphold a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision from September that awarded financial compensation to Indigenous children who were wrongly placed in foster care.
Ottawa appealed to the Federal Court a month after the tribunal’s ruling, which found the federal government “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against children living on-reserve by not properly funding child and family services.
On Sunday, rally organizer Dawn Johnson — who grew up in foster care and has worked with youth in care since aging out of the system — called on the court to do the right thing.
“We’re demanding change, and we’re showing that we’re not going to be silent and we’re not going to be OK with this,” she said.
Johnson repeatedly fought back tears as she talked about the toll forced family separation has had on survivors of the foster care system, with many of them taking their own lives or succumbing to drug addiction. Just last week, she said, a young man who grew up in the system died.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in October he agrees with many of the tribunal’s findings, including that victims should be compensated, but that more time is needed for consultation than the tribunal’s Dec. 10 deadline allows.
The government wrote in its legal filing that it wants the ruling to be set aside, or stayed, until a judicial review of the tribunal’s decision is complete.
But Johnson said the government has had plenty of time, as Indigenous advocates and tribes have been raising the issue for more than a decade.
“After being told multiple times that discrimination needs to cease, they continue to fight our children and our families and our people in court,” she said. “This needs to stop.”
The tribunal awarded $40,000 for every child unnecessarily taken from their families since January 2006, and another $40,000 for each of their parents or grandparents, depending on who the primary caregivers were.
The Assembly of First Nations estimates 54,000 children were impacted, meaning the compensation could cost the government at least $2.1 billion. If all of their parents also get compensation, that number would rise.
The tribunal first ruled against the government in 2016, saying Ottawa did not provide anywhere near the funding non-Indigenous children received for child welfare services. A decision of compensation was delayed at that time.
Co-organizer and youth worker Jaye Simpson cited the United Nations in calling the forced removal of children from their families “an act of genocide.”
“The Trudeau government challenging this is also an act of genocide,” she said. “He thinks he can spend billions of dollars taking children to court. What is reconciliation if he keeps doing this?”
Indigenous children make up more than half of children in foster care in Canada, even though they are just seven per cent of all children under the age of 15. In some provinces, as many as 90 per cent of kids in care are First Nations, Metis or Inuit.
The announcement of the government’s appeal came during the federal election campaign and prompted outcry from other party leaders and First Nations groups, who called it another example of Trudeau failing in his promises to mend fences with Indigenous communities.
Ottawa passed legislation this year that dramatically overhauls the country’s child welfare system in favour of Indigenous families. The legislation takes effect on Jan. 1, but details on how it will be funded have yet to be revealed.
The federal government has said the legislation will reduce the number of Indigenous children in care by affirming the inherent rights of First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities.
—With files from the Canadian Press