Indigenous

Talks to start soon on settling First Nations child welfare compensation, minister tells AFN

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the government has started to lay the groundwork for compensating First Nations children harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system.

Marc Miller says he is appointing a point person to co-ordinate with First Nations parties

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller speaks at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa on Tuesday. He told the assembly that Ottawa is moving forward to settle compensation for First Nations children and families harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Tuesday the government is laying the groundwork for talks on a compensation settlement package for First Nation children and their families harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system.

Miller, speaking to the Assembly of First Nations' December special assembly on Tuesday, told chiefs he would be naming a point person to co-ordinate with interested parties on the First Nations side to start discussions aimed at reaching a settlement on child welfare.

"We are committed to working constructively, quickly with the parties to reach a comprehensive settlement that will benefit First Nations, children and families," said Miller.

Miller said the government would be moving forward with certification of a $6 billion lawsuit filed in March on behalf of First Nations children harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system who were denied health services.

"We share the same goal — a comprehensive, fair and equitable resolution."

Miller directly addressed the criticism coming from First Nations leaders over the federal government's decision to challenge the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order for compensation. That order directed Ottawa to give First Nations individuals apprehended through the child welfare system on reserves and in Yukon $40,000 each in compensation.

"It's a difficult, emotional and painful topic, particularly because we are dealing with children," said Miller.

"I want to reiterate — we never questioned whether they are due compensation. They are. There is no question."

Indigenous Services minister says the government has started to lay the groundwork for compensating First Nations children harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system. 2:02

Speaking to reporters following his speech, Miller said that the government wanted to settle the compensation issue outside of the human rights tribunal framework and saw the class action lawsuit as the vehicle to deal with it.

Still, the federal government is proceeding with a judicial review before the Federal Court aimed at quashing the tribunal compensation order. Ottawa suffered a setback last Friday when the court denied a request from the federal government to put a hold on the tribunal order. A hearing date for the judicial review has not yet been set.

The ruling effectively forced Ottawa to start talks with the AFN and the Caring Society — which filed the initial human rights complaint in 2007 — to develop a mechanism for distributing compensation under the tribunal order. The federal government initially refused to engage in discussions.

Miller said officials would begin talks with the AFN and the Caring Society on developing the compensation mechanism by Jan. 29, 2020 — a new deadline which replaces the initial Dec. 10 due date set by the tribunal.

Miller said those talks will happen simultaneously with discussions between the three legal teams behind the class action lawsuit, with the aim of eventually bringing all sides together around one table.

"We will be sitting down with parties and seeing where there is a meeting of minds and move forward on a compensation package, a compensation model that is fair and equitable," said Miller.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he doesn't favour one avenue or another, as long as the outcome is in the best interests of children and families.

"I would recommend we get down to the table as soon as possible with [Indigenous Services Canada] and the Caring Society and the AFN, and get our teams working together and let's come up with a plan," said Bellegarde.

Cindy Blackstock, who heads the Caring Society, said it's possible to strike a settlement deal and still comply with the tribunal compensation order.

She said the tribunal could agree to a consent order — submitted by all parties — that would allow for the type of comprehensive settlement package Ottawa claims it wants. For that to happen, the proposal would have to be consistent with the tribunal's compensation ruling, she said.

"That is something we would be open to if they would be willing to facilitate these payments as soon as possible for all the recipients who were awarded ... compensation," said Blackstock.

Blackstock said this was pitched to Ottawa two years ago, but the federal government turned it down.

"The opportunity is right now. They can pay the full $40,000 to these victims and then work out something else later," she said.

"We are not willing to waive children's rights away."

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