The Canadian government said on Tuesday it had achieved what it called the biggest settlement in Canadian history, paying $ 31.5 billion to fix the country’s discriminatory child welfare system and compensate the indigenous peoples who suffered from it.
The tentative agreement forms the basis for a final settlement of several lawsuits brought by First Nations groups against the Canadian government. Of the global settlement, C $ 40 billion, half will go to compensate both children who have been needlessly displaced, as well as their families and guardians, over the past three decades.
The remainder of the money will be used to repair the child welfare system for First Nations children – who are statistically much more likely to be removed from their families – over the next five years to ensure that families can stay together.
“First Nations across Canada had to work very hard for this day to right the monumental wrongs committed against First Nations children, wrongs fueled by an inherently biased system,” said Cindy Woodhouse, Regional Chief for Manitoba at the Assembly of First Nations, the largest Indigenous organization in Canada.
“It was not and it is not a question of parenthood. It is really poverty, ”she told a press conference, adding that more than 200,000 indigenous children and families are affected by the agreement.
The agreement is a recognition that the child protection system had better resources to remove children than to support them in place. The system was the product of discriminatory policies put in place and enforced over generations against Indigenous communities.
Among those eligible for compensation, experts hired during the litigation estimated that 115,000 children have been separated from their families since 1991, said Robert Kugler, a lawyer who has represented First Nations plaintiffs in two different lawsuits, during the press conference.
While less than 8 percent of children under the age of 14 in Canada are Indigenous, they represent more than 52 percent of those in foster care, according to 2016 census data.
The case was first brought before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2007, by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, a child protection advocacy group, and the world’s largest Indigenous organization. of the country, the Assembly of First Nations.
They claimed that First Nations children on reserves and in a northern territory were discriminated against because the government did not fund their child protection and family support services to the same rate as non-Indigenous children. . In 2004, reports showed that there were three times as many First Nations children in state care as at the height of residential schools, when Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, a federal quasi-judicial body that adjudicates complaints of discrimination, agreed and ruled in 2016 that the government must reform its child and family services programs for First Nations. Nations. This included changes to the formula used to calculate funding allocations for government services on reserves, according to the court ruling.
But the federal government has stagnated, repeatedly calling for the case to be dismissed on technical grounds and failing to implement meaningful change. Over the past five years, the federal court has issued around 20 non-compliance orders, according to a lawyer for the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
In the meantime, other First Nations groups have filed class actions against the government on similar grounds.
“Canada could have settled this case for hundreds of millions of dollars in 2000, when we sounded the alarm that First Nations children were getting 70 cents on the dollar compared to other children,” said Cindy Blackstock, Director general of the organization that initiated the case and a professor of social work at McGill University in Montreal.
“But Canada chose not to do it,” added Ms. Blackstock. “And now we are in the tens of billions of dollars and, more importantly, children have lost their lives and sometimes their childhoods in the process.”
In November, respected Indigenous judge and former Senator Murray Sinclair was hired to help negotiate an out-of-court settlement.
“This is the largest settlement in Canadian history,” Marc Miller, Canada’s Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said at a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday. “But no amount of money can reverse the harm suffered by First Nations children. “
The precise settlement terms for compensation and future child welfare reforms are still being negotiated, the government wrote in a statement, though funding to help young people aging outside of the child care system. children will be distributed in the spring.
Political opponents of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized his government’s tactics in the child protection lawsuit during last summer’s federal election campaign. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, described the legal battle as Mr. Trudeau’s government “bringing aboriginal children to court”.
Canada has grappled with its colonial heritage since 2015, when the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that the historic removal of Indigenous children from their families for more than a century, when they were sent to residential schools , amounted to a “cultural genocide”. The commission issued dozens of calls to action, the first of which was to reduce the number of Indigenous children in state care.
Last year, the discovery of hundreds of anonymous graves at the sites of two of these former schools added emotional urgency to the calculations, including calls to abandon the Canada Day celebrations.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996, where hundreds died. Many have been physically and sexually assaulted.
Tuesday’s settlement is the second multibillion-dollar compensation deal with Indigenous communities to be announced by the federal government in recent weeks. In December, the Federal Court of Canada approved a $ 6.3 billion lawsuit against the government for years of contaminated drinking water on Indigenous reserves.