OTTAWA The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is pushing back the deadline for Ottawa to get rolling on compensation for First Nations children and their families over child-welfare services, but the delay comes with a sharp rebuke for the federal government.
The tribunal has ordered the federal government to pay what likely totals billions of dollars for harm done by chronic underfunding of those services for children on reserves, including families’ being split up needlessly.
Now the rights tribunal has sent a letter to the government, as well as the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and other parties involved in the case, saying they have until Jan. 29 to figure out a way forward on the compensation package. That includes which families should be compensated and how and when the money should be given.
The original deadline was Dec. 10. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the deadline is impossible to meet because the 40-day federal election campaign left the government in caretaker mode for much of the negotiation period set in the September ruling.
But the tribunal makes clear it is revising the date against its will because the government has done nothing to work with the other two parties to meet the deadline.
“The panel feels ‘cornered’ and does not appreciate it,” reads the letter from tribunal registry officer Judy Dubois.
The letter says rather than consult with the other parties, all the government has done is go to court to challenge the tribunal’s order. The letter notes the government could have asked the tribunal for a delay on the deadline right away, but didn’t do that until mid-November, when it said it was concerned the Federal Court wouldn’t have enough time to rule before the Dec. 10 deadline.
A spokesman for Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Wednesday the government “strongly agrees” the children who were hurt by government policies must be compensated.
“We’re seeking a solution that will provide comprehensive, fair and equitable compensation for First Nations children in care,” Kevin Deagle said in an email.
He said more time will allow for a better outcome.
The statement did not address the clear irritation the tribunal has with the government’s behaviour.
The tribunal ruled in September that Ottawa was to pay $40,000 to each First Nations child who had been inappropriately placed in foster care because of the federal government’s continued underfunding of the child-welfare system for children living on reserves. The same compensation was to go to any parents or grandparents whose children or grandchildren were taken away, and to kids who were refused essential services.
While provincial governments have jurisdiction over child-welfare programs, the federal government is responsible for funding the services on reserves. The caring society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a human-rights complaint alleging discrimination against kids living on reserves because the money Ottawa provided was much less than what provincial governments provided for all other kids. It left on-reserve children more likely to be forced into foster care.
The case dragged on for nine years before the tribunal ruled in 2016 that the federal government’s lesser funding was discriminatory. It awarded the compensation in September after finding the discrimination was both wilful and reckless and therefore worthy of the maximum award under the law.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the caring society, said Wednesday her organization will still file its findings and suggestions to the tribunal on Dec. 10. She said over the last two-and-a-half months, the society has met with First Nations youth who were in care to get their views; researched brain development for an idea of when a child might be old enough to properly handle receiving the compensation; and worked on issues like what to do if a victim has died, is in prison or is mentally incapacitated.
Dubois says in the letter the tribunal is aware of the work done by the society and the Assembly of First Nations and is very appreciative of their efforts.