Children harmed by on-reserve child welfare a step closer to compensation

OTTAWA — Indigenous children and their relatives harmed by chronic underfunding of child-welfare services on reserves are a step closer to resolving claims for compensation.

The federal government has agreed to certify the claims put forward by the Assembly of First Nations and counsel for a national class action suit.

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Consenting to certification is a step forward in negotiating a compensation settlement.

All three parties appeared in Federal Court Thursday and agreed to start mediation as soon as possible once a mutually acceptable mediator is appointed.

The progress is being welcomed by both the federal government and the AFN.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde says the government's decision to work with the assembly and its allies "in addressing this tragedy is an important step."

"Systemic discrimination against First Nations children is abhorrent." Bellegarde said in a statement.

"It is crucial that Canada act in good faith in these upcoming negotiations, provide fair compensation to all those who suffered harm, and implement real change. Only then can we bring closure to this sad chapter in our history."

In a joint statement, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Justice Minister David Lametti said the federal government's commitment to a "prompt resolution" of the claims is in line with system-wide reforms to Indigenous child welfare that are already underway.

"Discussions will continue in the spirit of collaboration in order to achieve a fair, equitable and comprehensive resolution to compensation — a resolution that will prioritize the safety and well-being of First Nations children," the ministers said.

The negotiations follow a 2016 ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that found the federal government discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding the child-welfare system on reserves.

That meant that children served by the federally backed system were more likely to be taken into foster care and separated from their families, for instance, than children covered by provincial systems.

Last September, the tribunal ordered the government to pay $40,000 to each child harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system since 2006 and $20,000 to parents or grandparents whose children were taken from them.

The government has estimated the cost of complying with that order would be as much as $8 billion and has filed for judicial review of the order.

The government has indicated that it would prefer to negotiate a settlement through the class-action suit.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.

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