Canada has reached a $40-billion agreement in principle to compensate First Nations children harmed by an underfunded child welfare system.
The deal is slated to end a human rights challenge that was launched 14 years ago.
“This is the largest settlement in Canadian history, but no amount of money can reverse the harms experienced by First Nations children,” said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller.
“However, historic injustices require historic reparations.”
The government is setting aside $20 billion for compensating Indigenous children and their family members, and another $20 billion is earmarked for funding services for Indigenous kids.
The case has been a major sore point in reconciliation efforts with Indigenous people in Canada, as both the former and current federal governments spent millions fighting it in court.
The longstanding legal battle centres around two different rulings.
The first is a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling from September 2019, which found the federal government “willfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserve through the underfunding of services.
As a form of redress for this discrimination, the tribunal ordered Ottawa to pay $40,000 each to roughly 50,000 First Nations children and their relatives.
The second ruling is from November 2020. It expanded the scope of Jordan’s Principle — a rule that pledges to provide First Nations children with the services they need when they need them, rather than compartmentalizing the services — taking the time to sort out which level of government is responsible for the cost.
The Federal Court shot down the government’s most recent bid to appeal these decisions on Sept. 29 – and ultimately, the government opted to pause its appeal of the rulings.
“Canada’s decisions and actions harmed First Nations children, families and communities,” said Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu.
“I believe that healing is possible if we look face-on at the harms caused, if we compensate, and most importantly, if we end the discrimination once and for all.”
The battle first began in 2007 when the First Nations Children and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed the initial human rights complaint.
But on Tuesday, the AFN applauded the deal.
“Today is the culmination of … more than 30 years of hard work and advocacy, grounded in First Nations rights, fairness, and equity for our children and their families,” said AFN Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse, who had sat at the negotiation table where the agreement was hammered out.
“We’ve delivered, and I’m so very proud of our efforts and what this will mean for our people.”
The AFN said in a press release that it plans to work over the “next few months” to finalize a “full compensation package” that will have details on who is eligible for compensation, and how they can apply for it.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Caring Society, was more cautious in her optimism.
“There is an unquestionable need for actionable change. This Agreement-in-Principle, while an important first step, is a non-binding agreement,” she wrote in a statement issued Tuesday.
“It is only when that binding agreement has been written and signed by the Government of Canada and acted upon with great haste that First Nations children, youth and families will have a measure of assurance that actionable change is coming.”
Hajdu promised that the government is planning to tackle that issue next.
“Now that Canada and the parties have signed these agreements in principle, we’ll focus on finalizing the settlement agreements,” Hajdu said.
“We look forward to immediately beginning this work with all of the parties.”
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