Critics continue to question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s false comments about the release of residential school records and his government’s ongoing court fight against First Nations child advocates and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
Trudeau made at least two dubious claims last week while sitting beside First Nations leaders on Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc territory, where the existence of more than 200 unmarked graves was confirmed on May 27.
“We are consulting with Indigenous partners and leaders,” Trudeau said when asked if he will appeal a Federal Court decision that upheld a tribunal compensation order for First Nations children unnecessarily taken into foster care.
“We are looking at the implications of the actual decision, and we will be making an announcement around that in due course,” Trudeau continued. “But we will be compensating those kids.”
The comment struck many as bizarre because the participants in the court case are all First Nations advocacy organizations who publicly urge him to drop the case and comply with the rulings.
“No consultation with us and we are a co-complainant in the legal case,” tweeted Cindy Blackstock, executive director at the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, right after.
“We haven’t been consulted either,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum told APTN News. “There’s actually some Indigenous leaders who are questioning who exactly was he consulting with.”
NAN represents 49 First Nations and about 45,000 people in northern Ontario. It intervened in the human rights complaint after it was filed by Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations in 2007.
The groups argued the Canadian government for decades knowingly underfunded child and family services on reserves, resulting in unnecessary child apprehension and even death. The Chiefs of Ontario and Congress of Aboriginal Peoples intervened as well.
APTN contacted all these organizations, which either didn’t reply or said they had not been consulted.
Tories fought case from the outset
For months, Trudeau has been making statements like this that the historical record proves false.
After the House of Commons passed a motion urging Trudeau to drop the case, he stood in question period and declared, “We are not fighting Indigenous kids in court.”
This wasn’t true.
Though it was the Conservative government under prime minister Stephen Harper that was in charge and took a combative approach when the complaint was filed.
The Tories spied on Blackstock, blocked her from meetings, tried to have the complaint dismissed and knowingly refused to disclose 90,000 “highly relevant” documents when a 70-day hearing began 2013.
But the government failed. Three years later, the tribunal ruled in favour of the children. This was in 2016 not long after Trudeau’s Liberals assumed power.
A quasi-judicial panel of human rights experts ruled Ottawa’s conduct was racially discriminatory. The panel ordered Canada to immediately reform the First Nations child and family services program and properly implement Jordan’s Principle.
Newly appointed ministers Carolyn Bennett and Jody Wilson-Raybould welcomed the order and promised to comply.
The government injected billions into the neglected Jordan’s Principle program and passed the child welfare reform law known as the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.
But in 2019, the panel turned its mind to the question of compensation. The tribunal ordered Canada to pay the statutory maximum of $40,000 to victims of discrimination and their families.
A year later the tribunal concluded Canada was still not fully implementing Jordan’s Principle, which exists to ensure all First Nations children have prompt access to essential health and social services without suffering delays while governments argue about who should pay for them.
The panel ordered Canada to consider some non-status First Nations kids living off reserve eligible to receive services. In response, the Canadian government went to court trying to have both orders overturned.
Justice Department lawyers then revived arguments they had been making under Harper that had already proved unsuccessful both at the tribunal and in previous appeals.
And their opponents denounced them for it. “These arguments reflect a shameful strategy aimed at saving money at the expense of First Nations children and families across the country,” said caring society lawyer Sarah Clarke during the hearing.
Trudeau doubled down, however. The prime minister accused federal opposition parties of being cynical and harming reconciliation while trying to “make political points and twist rhetoric”
But Trudeau was in fact fighting against an order handed down under his regime that would see tens of thousands of children paid billions of dollars as compensation for the pain, suffering and loss of dignity they endured.
PMO refuses to clarify
Now the Prime Minister’s Office refuses to say with whom the prime minister consulted or explain why Trudeau claims he isn’t fighting kids in court.
The PMO referred APTN’s questions to Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller’s office, who reiterated Trudeau’s comment that a decision whether to appeal will be made “in due course.”
The government can take the fight to the Federal Court of Appeal and then possibly to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The deadline to make the call is Friday after which the 30-day window to appeal closes.
Which has the other participants readying for another costly and time-consuming battle.
“He has spent enough money fighting against us, fighting against our children,” Achneepineskum said at a press conference.
“But,” she told APTN afterward, “we are prepared to do whatever it takes to defend the rights of the children and the generations to come.”
Blackstock, in a video posted online, added, “Sadly, I’m thinking an appeal is coming because the government isn’t at a place yet where it can learn from history.
Claim about school records also false
Meanwhile, the other false comment Trudeau made in Kamloops was about residential school records.
“All the records in possession of the federal government have already been turned over to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg,” he said.
The centre itself quickly replied, “This is not accurate.”
Among the outstanding documents are certain school narratives. These narratives were produced and provided by the government in response to lawsuits over residential schools. They contain outlines of school history based on government records, including incidents of abuse.
The centre has narratives publicly available on its site for most schools—but not all. Notably, the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the unmarked burial was found, is one whose narrative the centre is still waiting for.
“If the Prime Minister is telling all Canadians and Indigenous Peoples that the NCTR holds all records,” the centre said via statement, “it is time for that to be true.”
New Democrat MPs Niki Ashton and Leah Gazan responded with a letter expressing “consternation and disappointment” about his “misleading” comment.
“We are urging you to immediately release all records,” the letter said.
Records used during the independent assessment phase of the residential school settlement also haven’t been released, and many probably never will be. The documents contain thousands of accounts describing incidents of physical and sexual abuse experienced at the schools.
The Supreme Court of Canada said these must remain confidential. They can only be released to the centre if each individual claimant consents to turning over their file.
They’ll be held for 15 years at which point they’ll be destroyed.