Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstained from voting Monday afternoon on an NDP motion demanding the Canadian government halt its “belligerent and litigious approach to justice” for First Nations families, children and survivors.
The motion was adopted nevertheless with unanimous support of the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois, Greens and Liberal backbenchers.
The abstentions were significant, according to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who said it’s now on government to act.
“Trudeau didn’t even have the courage to vote. He walked away from Indigenous people,” Singh told APTN News.
“The cabinet didn’t have the courage to stand up for Indigenous people. They just abstained. They didn’t vote yes or no,” he added. “They can’t even defend their own actions.”
Singh said he tabled the motion to force the government to do more after a ground-penetrating radar scan discovered an unmarked burial site containing what are believed to be remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The find prompted trauma, grief and vigils both across the country and internationally.
Singh said the majority of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action remain uncompleted, despite Trudeau’s insistence that Ottawa has implemented 80 per cent of the recommendations under federal jurisdiction.
Singh’s motion demanded Ottawa drop two ongoing Federal Court appeals, sit down with survivors of St. Anne’s residential school, work harder to implement the calls to action and provide survivors with enhanced healing supports.
The other parties indicated their support last week, but the Liberals wouldn’t say which way they would vote.
The NDP leader said the government now has 10 days to table a report laying out progress made, which would then be referred to the Indigenous affairs committee.
Only the Canada Revenue Agency spent more money on legal services than the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations last year. Ottawa spends approximately $33 million per year on Indigenous litigation.
Trudeau’s Liberals have spent $163.4 million alone on court battles against First Nations and $346.9 million on Indigenous legal services in total.
Singh said the vote is a clear indication Canadians want these battles wound down.
“People that are representing Canadians voted to say that this Liberal government should stop fighting these kids in court, stop fighting these survivors and should implement the calls to action,” Singh said.
“Are they going to further betray Indigenous people by not following through on what we have voted on today? We’ll have to wait and see.”
Trudeau hit back at Singh and the other parties on Friday, claiming, incorrectly, his government is not fighting First Nations kids in court.
“We have been working clearly and collaboratively with Indigenous organizations and leadership across the country on the harm that has been done over the past many years to far many Indigenous kids, now adults, in the child and family services system,” Trudeau said.
In fact, the Liberals are currently appealing two rulings of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal handed down in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
In 2016, the tribunal concluded the state was violating the Canadian Human Rights Act by underfunding the on-reserve child welfare system and refusing to implement Jordan’s Principle.
In 2019, the tribunal ruled the violation was a “worst case scenario” under the act. It said Canada was “devoid of caution with little to no regard to the consequences of its behaviour towards First Nations children and their families.”
The tribunal awarded the maximum allowable amount of $40,000 to victims and families because the “wilful and reckless” systemic discrimination harmed thousands of people and even factored into some kids’ deaths.
The Canadian government wants a judge to quash this compensation along with another order broadening eligibility for Jordan’s Principle to some non-status First Nations kids.
Ottawa has said it will compensate victims of the knowingly underfunded child welfare system but disputes the tribunal’s jurisdiction. Canada argues the tribunal was wrong to order individual compensation in a case about systemic discrimination.
“We will be compensating them. The questions and discussions ongoing with the communities and the leadership is about what the right level of compensation for different groups and different communities are,” Trudeau said Friday. “Those conversations are ongoing.”
By “conversations” he meant confidential settlement talks happening in a $10-billion class action filed in 2019 by victims of the CFS and Jordan’s Principle systems.
The suit covers the period between 1991 (cut-off for the ’60s Scoop lawsuit) and now.
Canada plans to litigate versus a large segment of the proposed class, according to documents filed in April.
The Crown “wishes to advance its defence” in court against Jordan’s Principle class members who were denied essential health and social services before 2007.
Ottawa claims the federal government hadn’t formally adopted Jordan’s Principle before then, so that part of the lawsuit “cannot succeed.”
The plaintiffs disagree. They’ve split the suit in two and plan to fight Canada on behalf of families and now adult children who are not included in the talks.
APTN asked Trudeau if he would reverse his position as a gesture of reconciliation, but the prime minister deflected.
Singh said “the federal government is showing their real colours” in taking positions like these.
“It just speaks to this Liberal government’s fake approach to reconciliation,” he said. “They’ll talk about reconciliation on one side and then they’ll fight these kids in court. They’ll talk about the Jordan’s Principle on one side and then find ways to exclude people.”
The tribunal appeals begin June 14 in Federal Court.
—With files from Jamie Pashagumskum
The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide emotional and crisis referral services to former residential school students. It is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419. All Indigenous Peoples can access the Hope for Wellness Help Line at www.hopeforwellness.ca or by phoning 1-855-242-3310