AFN and Ottawa keep talking while estimated 300K wait for child welfare compensation

As thousands of eligible children and parents wait for compensation from a 2019 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, Canada and the Assembly of First Nations continue hammering out the details of the $20-billion Final Settlement Agreement or FSA.

“We’re talking to our lawyers, we’re doing all that; we’re also talking to the political people here in Ottawa, to try and resolve this very quickly,” Cindy Woodhouse, AFN regional chief for Manitoba and member of the executive committee responsible to child welfare, told Host Annette Francis on Nation to Nation.

In December 2021, the federal government announced an “historic” agreement – the FSA  – between Canada and the AFN. It was a $40-billion deal that would see almost half that amount go to First Nations children who were taken from their homes and parents, and placed in the care of the state.

The deal combined two class-action lawsuits against Canada – one based on a discriminatory child welfare system and the other for children denied services under a federal program called Jordan’s Principle.

Canada and the AFN were hoping the deal would satisfy the 2019 tribunal ruling that ordered Canada to pay $40,000 for the “reckless and wilful” discrimination against First Nations children in the provinces and Yukon. The N.W.T. was excluded from the ruling because it has its own child welfare program outside the system funded by Ottawa.

But on Oct. 26, 2022, the tribunal rejected the FSA for excluding some children and parents. For instance, a child who was placed in a foster home that wasn’t paid for by the federal government wouldn’t be eligible for compensation, and neither would parents of children who were deceased under Jordan’s Principle program.

Last week, the AFN held its annual special chiefs assembly (SCA) in Ottawa where leaders voted in favour of a resolution that directed the executive to push the federal government to follow through on the ruling from the tribunal – and award each eligible child and parent $40,000.

According to a release from the AFN, the draft resolution, “supports the payment of compensation for all survivors and victims of the Government of Canada’s discriminatory funding of the First Nations Child and Family Services (FNCFS) Program and narrow application of Jordan’s Principle. It mandates continued support for AFN Representative Plaintiffs and to ensure swift payment of compensation.”

Ahead of the SCA, Woodhouse largely blamed Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the original plaintiff in the human rights case that dates back to 2007, for convincing the tribunal to reject the deal.

Blackstock brushed off the comments and told APTN News ahead of the SCA, that Canada must be forced to compensate the children identified at the tribunal – and then it can work out a deal with the AFN.

“Pay the money. This is what we’ve always said at the caring society. Pay the money, provide the supports, and then work out this other stuff later on the class action. This has been going on forever,” she said. “The government often comes up and says, ‘We want to compensate victims’ and then victims see nothing coming and that’s still the case.

“We want to see that remedied.”

Woodhouse, who was in Ottawa this week to follow up on a number of meetings, said that 300,000 survivors and parents are eligible for compensation – but didn’t know how soon this would happen.

“Our people have waited too long and money is not going to solve every issue they’ve been through, but they deserve something for what they went through,” she told Nation to Nation. “A lot of hurt, a lot of pain, a lot of separation from their communities, language, culture and these children and these people – some now adults – need to be offered healing.”

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu spoke at the SCA on Dec. 8 but didn’t mention anything about adhering to the tribunal ruling.

“On CHRT, I note that the AFN along with other parties have worked extremely hard to arrive at a final settlement agreement,” she told the chiefs. “I hope that we get this deal completed and I want to thank everyone for staying with it.

“And, I want to recommit to you today that the government of Canada will stay with you to get kids and their families, the compensation they’re owed.”

Nation to Nation reached out to Hajdu Thursday for an update on the government’s plans to address the tribunal ruling, which is now three years old.

“I’m unable to confirm at the moment, but we are continuing to work with parties to get compensation to children and families as quickly as possible,” said Alison Murphy, spokesperson for Hajdu.

The tribunal only issued a summary ruling in October – essentially a summary of its findings. A longer, more in-depth ruling is expected in the coming weeks.

Internal issues at the AFN

According to AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald and her executive – made up of regional chiefs from across the country – the ongoing human resources issues with former staff members and related litigation, the chiefs are united in getting a number of critical issues.

“We’re in a different place than we were in July, that’s for certain,” Archibald said.

She informed the SCA that Murray Sinclair, a retired senator and former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to calm the waters at the highest levels of the organization.

“He is somebody that is so well respected across Turtle Island and he has helped with the child welfare file a couple of times,” Archibald told APTN News. “So we put forward a number of names and he was on our list and we approached him and so hopefully, we’ll be by January kind of solidifying his involvement with us.”

When asked about Sinclair, Woodhouse, who tried to oust Archibald from the national chiefs’ position last summer, said she hadn’t been briefed on hiring and the first she heard about it was along with everyone else at the SCA.

Also on N2N, money for a new initiative was announced at the environmental meetings being held in Montreal called COP15.

It comes at a time when the species at risk list is growing and there are rising concerns for the environment.

According to Ecojustice lawyer Victoria Watson, the National First Nation Guardian Network will help train Indigenous youth in different environmental fields.

“Generally youth are employed in these guardian programs and they don’t necessarily have existing knowledge of the land,” said Watson, “existing expertise in GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping systems, or existing practices of traditional ecological knowledge.

“And so, that really, a big part of the beauty of these programs, is getting youth out to reconnect with the land and connect with their elders.”

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