Some details released on $40 billion Indigenous child welfare settlement agreement

Cindy Blackstock, executive director, First Nation Child and Family Caring Society Shutterstock

OTTAWA—On January 4, federal Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and a group Indigenous leaders including Cindy Woodhouse, Manitoba Assembly of First Nations (AFN) regional chief and legal counsel representing the class members made the joint announcement providing some of the details of the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

Under the terms of the agreement in principle, the Government of Canada will provide $20 billion to children on reserve and in the Yukon who were unnecessarily removed from their homes between April 1, 1991 and March 31, 2022. The agreement extends to the children’s parents and caregivers. In addition, compensation will also be extended to those impacted by the narrow definition of Jordan’s Principle the government used between December 12, 2007 and November 2, 2017. Children who didn’t receive essential public services between April 1, 1991 and December 11, 2007 will also be eligible for a financial compensation.

Jordan’s Principle is supposed to be a lens that ensures First Nations children are given the same access to publicly funded programs and services as all other Canadian children without delay or denial. It applies to children on- and off-reserve. Jordan’s Principle is named for Jordan River Anderson, a Cree boy who died at the age of five after waiting for home-based care that was approved when he was two but due to a financial dispute between the federal and provincial governments, never arrived.

The second $20 billion will help reform the First Nations Child and Family Services Program and will be spread out over five years. In a major addition, First Nations adults turning 18 and transitioning out of the child welfare system will receive support instead of being cast to their own devices. The funding is also aimed at shoring up prevention mechanisms to help keep children at home, in their communities. That process is expected to start in April 2022.

“It’s an acknowledgment of the extreme harms and grief that too many families continue to live with each and every day,” Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said during the press conference.

But there is still one more hurdle ahead. The preliminary agreement signed on New Year’s Eve must be signed off on by both the Federal Court and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT).

In February 2007, the AFN and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society filed a complaint before the CHRT alleging that the federal government discriminated against First Nations children on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, by providing inequitable funding of child welfare services on reserve.

“We are here today because of the spirit of the children in the unmarked graves who captured Canadians’ attention in a way that they could not look away from the horrors of the residential schools and in a way that provoked Canadians to ask new questions about what is going on right now on our watch,” said First Nations Child and Family Caring Society executive director Cindy Blackstock in a news conference following the announcement. 

Ms. Blackstock went on to say that the agreement came about because of “residential school survivors who told their truths and put equity and child welfare at the top of the calls to action and didn’t want their grandchildren going through what they went through” and the perseverance of those service providers were given none of the tools by the Government of Canada they needed to keep children safe.

“You heard a lot about discrimination in the previous press conference,” she said, but noted that it was their efforts in “trying to break the pattern” and wanting the “apartheid system to stop” that helped propel efforts forward.

But Ms. Blackstock, a  Gitxsan Nation member who has been fighting for justice for Indigenous children since long before the 2007 challenges where issued, although expressing optimism, still had words of caution. “These agreements in principle are non-binding and nothing changes in the lives of children today,” she said. “We need to commit ourselves to keeping watch on the government of Canada holding it accountable until it lands some of these things.”

Ms. Blackstock spoke of dealing with the inequalities that lie at the heart of the reasons why First Nation children are 17.2 percent more likely to be in foster care and the path forward from here.

“Public pressure and litigation and all of us paying attention has made a world of difference,” she said, going on to caution, “but these are simple words on paper. It is not time to look away and it is not time for any of us to exhale.”