A Federal Court judge has verbally approved a landmark $23-billion settlement that will see Ottawa compensate more than 300,000 First Nations children and their families over chronic underfunding of on-reserve child-welfare services.
The settlement comes more than 15 years after the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society jointly launched a human-rights complaint that sparked a years-long legal battle with Ottawa.
Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said on X — formerly Twitter — that she was thinking of the victims and is looking forward to see “comprehensive supports” for them as the process continues.
The 2007 complaint revolved around allegations that Ottawa’s underfunding of on-reserve child welfare services amounted to discrimination, and that First Nations children were denied equal access to support including school supplies and medical equipment.
The tribunal found in 2016 that First Nations are adversely impacted by the services provided by the government and, in some cases, denied services as a result of the government’s involvement.
“The panel acknowledges the suffering of those First Nations children and families who are or have been denied an equitable opportunity to remain together or to be reunited in a timely manner,” the 2016 ruling said.
Child welfare was also among the central issues flagged in the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent six years delving into the painful residential school system that operated from the 1870s to 1996.
The proposed settlement includes $23 billion in compensation for more than 300,000 children and their families, and another $20 billion to reform the child welfare system.
Ottawa offered to spend $20 billion to reform the child-welfare system and another $20 billion on compensation last year, but the tribunal rejected the proposal and raised concerns that not all eligible claimants would receive compensation.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said the settlement’s approval is one piece of a broader reform of the child welfare system, and survivors have said a monetary sum won’t heal the traumas they’ve experienced.
“Families were shattered. People grew up not knowing anything about their backgrounds, their true connection to culture or language,” she said Tuesday.
“And First Nations children with profound disabilities did not get access to the supports they needed to thrive.”
Blackstock said on Monday the settlement will be a welcome step to help people heal.
“I’m feeling encouraged that this might finally be some measure of justice for the many victims, children, youth and families of Canada’s discrimination,” she said.
But she added issues persist in the child welfare system.
Blackstock said First Nations children living on-reserve are still subject to inequitable access to health care, and Ottawa must do more to protect them.
“We need to make sure the government of Canada actually treats children fairly. Not only today, but the day after tomorrow, and the year after,” she said.
Carolyn Buffalo, a mother from Montana First Nation in Maskwacis, Alta., is a representative plaintiff in the class-action for Jordan’s Principle families.
Speaking with reporters on Monday, Buffalo expressed her frustrations in trying to get her now 21-year-old son care for his cerebral palsy on-reserve.
“Why should we be punished just because we have these handicapped children and we live on-reserve?”
Jordan’s Principle is named after Jordan River Anderson, a First Nations child born in 1999 with multiple health issues that kept him in hospital from birth.
He didn’t leave the hospital until he died at the age of five, as governments couldn’t agree on who should pay for his home-based care on reserve.
Jordan’s Principle, which was passed in the House of Commons in December 2007, committed that First Nations children get the services they need when they need them, with payments to be worked out later.
Part of the settlement agreement calls for an apology from the prime minister, but Blackstock and the AFN have differing opinions on the impact that apology could have.
On Oct. 16, interim national chief Joanna Bernard and Manitoba regional chief Cindy Woodhouse urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal government to apologize for the historical and systemic injustices and what they called the narrow application of Jordan’s Principle.
“Prime Minister Trudeau’s public apology and acknowledgment of the devastating effects the federal child welfare program has had on so many First Nations children and families is not only necessary, but long overdue,” said Bernard.
“An open apology in the House of Commons would symbolize a step forward in the spirit of reconciliation and healing.”
Blackstock said Monday that victims deserve individual apologies for the harms they’ve experiences, but in order for an apology to meaningful, the federal government has to improve how it relates to First Nations going forward.
“The best apology Canada can make is changed behaviour; making sure it doesn’t hurt another generation of kids,” said Blackstock.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023.