The Liberal government is preparing to spend $40 billion to compensate First Nations children harmed by Ottawa’s underfunding of child and family services on reserve, as well as on reforming the current system.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller made the announcement Monday, the day before the government planned to release a fiscal update where the money will be set aside.
The spending is contingent on Ottawa and child-welfare advocates reaching an agreement over compensation the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has ordered the federal government to pay First Nations children and their parents or grandparents.
In a historic ruling, the tribunal found they suffered as a result of the government’s inadequate funding for child and family services in their communities, which resulted in families being separated.
“This is 30 years of the cost of failure — and that cost is high,” Miller said.
Negotiations began after the federal government announced in late October it wanted to reach an out-of-court settlement on the matter, as well as have an agreement to address outstanding issues within the child-welfare system and cover the costs of related class actions.
The parties have until the end of December to reach a deal.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Caring Society, which is one of the litigants in the case, says Ottawa has known for years about its unequal funding for First Nations children and is now paying the price for that delay, which has hurt kids.
“Over 20 years ago, fixing the inequalities would have only cost hundreds of millions,” she said in a statement Monday.
Miller said Monday about half of the $40 billion would fund long-term reforms, while the remainder would cover compensation costs. He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” an agreement will be struck sometime within the next two weeks. Parliament is set to go on a break for the holidays Friday.
“I want everyone to be conscious of the fact that there still are some very fragile discussions underway,” said Miller.
“There’s issues of costing, there’s issues of sorting out amongst the parties what that proper allotment of compensation is. Again, we’re not done.”
Murray Sinclair, a former senator and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is overseeing the negotiations.
“Frankly, if we didn’t have Murray Sinclair, talks probably would have broken down by now,” said Miller.
“Everyone needs to realize that in the last six weeks, despite the fact that there is no agreement as of this date, we’ve made progress that would have taken us years to be done in an adversarial process.”
Ottawa entered into negotiations after a Federal Court ruling released earlier in the fall upheld orders by the tribunal for it to pay $40,000 in damages to each of the thousands of individual First Nations children removed from their homes, as well as to some of their relatives.
The tribunal also ruled the federal government must expand its criteria so more First Nations children could access services using Jordan’s Principle, which was designed to ensure jurisdictional disputes over who pays for what do not prevent kids from getting support.
The Assembly of First Nations is among the parties on the case.
Cindy Woodhouse, a regional chief at the Assembly of First Nations who is leading negotiations for the organization, said in a statement she’s committed to ending discrimination against First Nations children and is focused on finding a path forward.
“The magnitude of the proposed compensation package is a testament to how many of our children were ripped from their families and communities,” said National Chief RoseAnne Archibald of the Assembly of First Nations in a statement.
Pressure has increased on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the past six months to drop their court battles over the compensation orders since First Nations began confirming the finding of unmarked graves at former residential school sites.