Confidential talks have begun on compensation for Indigenous children unnecessarily taken into the child welfare system aimed at reaching an out-of-court settlement worth billions before the end of the year.
The parties will likely be extremely tight-lipped during the discussions so that the negotiations are not affected by public comment, the government has said. Ottawa made it clear it is willing to put a significant amount of money on the table, although it said it cannot specify how much. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller confirmed on Friday it will cost billions to fix the problem.
The discussions were announced on Friday, after the federal government filed a “protective appeal” in the Federal Court of Appeal to state it believed a judge erred in his September decision upholding two orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT). Ottawa filed the notice of appeal focused on one of those orders on financial compensation for Indigenous children and their families.
The federal government’s decision to appeal met sharp backlash from opposition parties and advocates. Ottawa said that despite the appeal, any legal proceedings will be on hold for now and the focus will be on reaching an agreement.
Adrienne Vaupshas, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, said on Monday that discussions between the government and the parties are continuing and “will continue until the end of the year or until we reach a global resolution on outstanding issues that have been subject of litigation.” The content of the conversations remains confidential, she added.
The re-elected Trudeau government has faced much criticism for continuing the legal fight in the Indigenous child welfare case despite saying that its most important relationship is with Indigenous people. Experts have also said that children who were unnecessarily taken from their homes and families deserve to be compensated for the discrimination immediately.
Bobby Cameron, the Saskatchewan regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations and chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said on Monday that filing the appeal was the “wrong decision to make.”
He said it “totally goes against everything that we have been working towards” to improve the quality of life for First Nations children. Mr. Cameron encouraged the Trudeau government to hear directly from the families that are affected in each region of the country.
On the eve of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Federal Court Justice Paul Favel found the CHRT reasonably exercised its discretion under the Canadian Human Rights Act to handle a “complex case of discrimination to ensure that all issues were sufficiently dealt with and that the issue of compensation was addressed in phases.”
The decision also said the tribunal properly considered the record to determine whether to award damages for willful and reckless conduct. The CHRT order required Ottawa to provide up to $40,000 in compensation to each First Nations child unnecessarily taken into foster care as a result of underfunded government services since 2006. It also requires payments to parents or grandparents.
Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, told The Globe and Mail’s podcast The Decibel that preliminary discussions took place on Monday. She also said she has been part of “talking circles” before and “they haven’t really got us very far.”
“I think this is worth one last kick at the can for kids,” Ms. Blackstock said. “And then that’s it for me. I’m done. Because the only real progress that we’ve seen so far has been really through litigation. But in fairness to the kids, if we can reach an agreement, it’ll bring justice sooner. So that’s why I’m going in there.”
Ms. Blackstock also said she has also made it clear the orders from the CHRT should stand.
“This money isn’t mine,” she said. “It belongs to the victims.”
Justice Minister David Lametti said on Friday that Ottawa thinks it can arrive at a solution that is comprehensive and includes not only what the CHRT was trying to do, but also touches on separate class-action lawsuits focused on Indigenous child welfare.
“We’ve got the good will of the parties. We’ve put a significant amount on the table to get the parties to the table, and we’re confident that this can happen.”
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