Manitoba advocate hopes for healing for First Nations kids in care after court decision on compensation
Federal Court rejected an application for a judicial review of compensation order of $40K per child
A Manitoba advocate for kids in care hopes a recent Federal Court decision will mean not just compensation, but also healing, for thousands of First Nations children affected by inequality in the child welfare system.
Last week, the Federal Court dismissed an application from the federal government for a judicial review of a landmark human rights tribunal compensation order for First Nations children.
In 2019, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered Ottawa to pay $40,000 — the maximum amount allowed — to each child apprehended through the on-reserve child welfare system since 2006.
Manitoba has about 10,000 children in care, approximately 8,000 of whom are First Nations children, says Cora Morgan, the First Nations Family Advocate in Manitoba for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
"So the statistics are very high," she said. "The percentage of kids in care [is] dramatically higher than any other province in the country."
The human rights complaint, first filed in 2007 by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, was intended to address the inequalities First Nations children on reserve face when seeking care.
"If you're a child 15 years ago, when you're born with any type of special needs and if you're living on reserve and the health-care system on reserve didn't have an ability to respond, the typical reaction was to put the child in care," said Morgan.
"Remove the child and place them in out of community care in order to access those medical supports."
The Federal Court also upheld a tribunal ruling that ordered payments to each First Nations child (along with their parents or grandparents) who were forced to leave their homes to access services, or who were denied services covered by the policy known as Jordan's Principle.
That policy states First Nations children must receive the care they need first, and the decision about which level of government pays the bill should be decided later.
But Morgan said inequalities still exist, and many children are still being apprehended to get the care they need.
Support needed with compensation
The Federal Court decision — delivered the day before the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — "was the right decision, and it was also done at a time when reconciliation was the order of the day," said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee.
"I think that it is a significant step forward on the road to legitimate reconciliation."
But Morgan says we've been here before.
"I think we're looking to see what the process is going to look like — you know, we've seen processes for residential school, Sixties Scoop, day school, and now this."
She wonders how the compensation will be awarded. She's also worried those who could benefit the most might not know they quality for the compensation.
A framework for compensation was approved by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in February 2021.
"I want to hope that along with that $40,000 that there's opportunities for healing because a lot of times when young people … suffered in these institutions, just going through these processes is very triggering.
"They need those mental health supports that go along with … digging up that trauma."
Lack of mental health supports on reserve
A Shamattawa First Nation mother who has spent the last 15 months trying to have her daughter returned home says she has seen first-hand how a fractured health-care system has taken children from their homes.
The woman's daughter was was apprehended following a suicide attempt in July 2020.
"I see a lot of kids are being sent out of the reserve. Some of them don't even come back after they turn 18 — they just live out there on the streets," said the mother. CBC is not naming her because her daughter was recently involved with child and family services.
Her daughter was in Winnipeg until April 2021 and had very little contact with her family. During that time, her mother tried desperately to get her back.
"It seems like they were just going against me, instead of working with me, and their job is to help," said the mother.
During her months-long struggle to get her daughter back, the mother had to navigate the child welfare system, with the help of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak's child welfare secretariat.
The woman says during the process, her mothering skills were brought into question, and she was accused of being intoxicated the night she found out about her daughter's suicide attempt — a claim she denies.
The mother has since registered for family enhancement — a program meant to strengthen family bonds — and says her daughter is on a personal healing journey.
She says her CFS case will close later this month.
As for the tribunal compensation, she's not sure how much it will help.
"It's not going to put everything back," she said.
Committed to 'equitable process': Indigenous Services
In a statement to CBC, Indigenous Services Canada says it is reviewing the tribunal's decision.
"We remain committed to working with the parties, as we have been doing, to develop a fair and equitable process for compensating those who have been harmed," the statement reads.
The government has until Oct. 29 to file an appeal, but Grand Chief Settee hopes that Ottawa will consider how delaying payment could impact the children.
"We're dealing with the most vulnerable in our society, and they've already been through a lot," he said.
"They don't need to have this unethical move by the government to disrupt the things that have already been accomplished and we need to move forward."