AFN takes child welfare reform behind closed doors

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) moved behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss child welfare reform following complaints from three regional chiefs.

The move came at the end of Day 1 of its annual meeting being held in Montreal.

A plenary meeting on the subject was planned for early afternoon, then rescheduled for late afternoon and, finally, moved in-camera.

This follows the refusal to put any proposed resolutions on child welfare on this week’s agenda.

AFN Grand Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said a special chiefs’ meeting is scheduled to discuss the topic in Winnipeg this fall.

The first day of the yearly meeting, which is Woodhouse Nepinak’s first since she became national chief in December, was expected to heavily focus on child welfare and compensation for harms being negotiated with Ottawa.

Woodhouse Nepinak said in a release Tuesday she has received a draft offer from Ottawa to overhaul Indigenous child-welfare systems, but insists she cannot say publicly how much money is on the table.

“This is on long-term reform,” said  in a statement to chiefs on Tuesday. “I’m very happy for the compensation here.”

National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak gives her opening address at the Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

The reforms are part of a $43-billion settlement offer from Canada to the AFN, the result of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision that Ottawa discriminated against Indigenous kids by chronically underfunding child-welfare services in First Nations.

More than half of that money — $23 billion — is intended to compensate about 300,000 people harmed by a system that often placed kids in foster care instead of offering support to help families stay together.

The agreement also included an initial promise of $20 billion to reform child-welfare programs and address chronic problems.

Ahead of the Montreal gathering, Woodhouse Nepinak was criticized by Bobby Cameron (Saskatchewan), Terry Teegee (B.C.) and Ghislain Picard (Quebec) for leaving First Nations leaders out of negotiations with the federal government over the terms of child-welfare reforms.

She has denied that charge.

She told chiefs Tuesday that the current offer is privileged, so she can’t disclose the amount of money publicly, but said she thinks “it’s a fair offer.”

She also said regional chiefs have the details, and chiefs can discuss it amongst themselves.

“And let’s never lose sight of what this is all about: it’s about our children, and about our future,” she said.

Wants more

But Teegee told APTN News he still wants more.

“I do think we do have to go back to our chiefs, like we said in our resolutions, in our motions, we’d come back to the chiefs for approval,” he said in an interview.

The settlement agreement was the result of a human-rights complaint filed 17 years ago by the AFN and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

Woodstock Nepinak has been leading negotiations with Ottawa over the plans and funding for reforms to the system.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Caring Society, was critical of the decision to keep the latest offer secret.

“Canada has a duty to consult with First Nations about their children. It ought to be disclosing all this stuff. It shouldn’t be dealing with this stuff in secret,” said Blackstock, who was present at the assembly.

She said the case could end up back in front of the tribunal if the deal isn’t good enough to end the discrimination.

“First Nations have been very good about putting solutions forward, so listen and act on those solutions and you’ll save money over the long run, and you’ll do the right thing for the country,” she said.

More than 150,000 children and caregivers who went through the child welfare system on reserve will each receive $40,000 in compensation for being discriminated against by the federal government while living on reserve.

The money will go to children who were removed from their families on reserve across the provinces and Yukon by child welfare agencies. Parents and caregivers will also receive compensation.

The assembly’s annual general assembly will continue until Thursday with health, justice and land rights on the agenda for Wednesday.

Federal ministers, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are expected to address the chiefs on Thursday.

with files by The Canadian Press

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