Manitoba advocates say final settlement on First Nations child welfare agreement a step forward
More must be done to compensate those impacted by discriminatory child welfare practices, advocates say
Manitoba advocates for Indigenous families affected by the child welfare system welcomed the new $20-billion settlement agreement to compensate some young people, but said more needs to be done to keep children with their families.
On Monday, Ottawa, the Assembly of First Nations and plaintiffs in two class-action cases finalized the agreement, an early step in a long process of compensating people who have been affected by the discriminatory system.
The head of Fearless R2W — a Winnipeg group that works to support families involved in the child and family services system — said Indigenous children are vastly overrepresented in the foster system, and the settlement is just an initial step toward righting wrongs.
"I think people are going to be feeling excited and happy knowing that there is finally going to be some equality," said Mary Burton, the executive director of Fearless R2W.
However, it will take more than money to fix the harm done to First Nations children and their families — child apprehension rates must drop and social workers need better training, Burton said.
"They need to put their personal biases aside and realize that not every family is a nuclear family. Not every family lives the way that Western societies think they should."
Cora Morgan, the First Nations Family Advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said it's important to recognize the toll apprehension takes on children and their families, especially after 150 years of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and day schools.
About 10,000 children are brought under the care of child and family services in Manitoba every year, and the majority won't be eligible for the settlement, she said.
"It's very disappointing that this is only looking at those federally funded children. It's a huge step for them, but there's more work that needs to be done to acknowledge all of the children who went through the child welfare system," she said Tuesday, from the AFN national conference in Vancouver.
Indigenous Services Canada said the $20-billion settlement is the largest in Canadian history. It will be made available to:
- First Nations children on-reserve and in the Yukon who were removed from their homes between April 1, 1991, and March 31, 2022.
- Those affected by what the government called its "narrow definition" of Jordan's Principle, used between Dec. 12, 2007, and Nov. 2, 2017.
- Children who did not receive an essential public service or faced delays in accessing such services between April 1, 1991, and Dec. 11, 2007.
- Caregiving parents or grandparents of the children covered by the agreement who may also be eligible for compensation.
The non-binding agreement reached earlier this year also includes $20 billion for long-term reform of the on-reserve child welfare system, but a final settlement on that portion has yet to be reached.
Morgan wants to see that money used to prevent apprehensions and ensure First Nations have jurisdiction over child welfare.
"We had really wonderful ways of caring for children and our children were held in very high regard. And so I think it's just very important that we return to those ways and bring about healing," she said.
It's been a long fight with the federal government, said Sarah Clarke, an Ottawa-based lawyer with Clarke Child and Family Law.
She is representing the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and has been working on the file since 2008 when she was a law student.
It's a cautious victory considering Ottawa has appealed every court decision ruling in favour of the children in care, she said.
"We thought at so many different times and junctures that Canada would do the right thing. Certainly in 2016 we thought, 'Oh my gosh, we won. They're not going to appeal. We're going to wrap this case up in the next 12 months.'
"And here we are in 2022 and we're still not done," she said in a Tuesday interview with CBC Manitoba's Marcy Markusa on Information Radio.
Her firm received the settlement agreement very late on Monday night, so they are parsing through the text to ensure every child receives what is owed.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in 2016 that $40,000 should be paid to each First Nations child unnecessarily placed in foster care.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said in January that the $20 billion is expected to cover those minimum payments and those who may be entitled to more.
"As long as the kids get their $40,000 as a minimum, then this is something to celebrate," Clarke said.
She also wants to see continued financial and mental health supports for those children impacted by the discriminatory system.
The parties in the settlement must go back to the Human Rights Tribunal to determine if the final settlement agreement is in compliance with its orders, but that motion hasn't been filed yet.
If the tribunal rules in favour of the settlement, federal court must also approve it.
The timing on the rollout of the money is up in the air at this point, but Clarke said she's hopeful people will receive their compensation by 2023.
With files from Alana Cole and Wendy Parker