Ottawa earmarks $40B for Indigenous child welfare compensation, program reform

The federal government is setting aside $40 billion in its fall economic update for First Nations child welfare as it continues talks on settling compensation claims.

'This is 30 years of the cost of failure, and that cost is high,' Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister says

A student walks past a display at Ottawa's Hillcrest High School on Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, 2021. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The federal government announced today it is setting aside $40 billion in its fall economic update for First Nations child welfare as it continues talks on settling compensation claims.

The money is to cover the cost of settling a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order, two class action lawsuits and long-term reform of the Indigenous child welfare system over a five year period.

"It's a positive announcement, but what we need to see how this actually lands in terms of payments for children and families," said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

In 2019, the tribunal ordered Ottawa to pay $40,000 — the maximum allowed under the Canadian Human Rights Act — to each child, along with their primary guardian, who attended on-reserve child welfare system from at least Jan. 1, 2006, to a date to be determined by the tribunal.

It also directed the federal government to pay $40,000 to each First Nations child, along with their primary guardian, who was denied services or forced to leave home to access services covered by the policy known as Jordan's Principle.

WATCH | Miller on compensation plans:

Miller addresses Indigenous child welfare compensation

1 year ago
Duration 1:37
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller responds to questions about the government's plan to address Indigenous child welfare compensation. CBC News has learned the federal government is setting aside $40 billion in its fall economic update and that will be announced on Dec. 14.

"We reflect on 30 years of failure and discrimination toward Indigenous children in the child welfare system," Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller told reporters at Parliament Hill.

"This is 30 years of the cost of failure, and that cost is high."

Miller said the $40 billion figure has not been finalized. He pointed to ongoing "fragile conversations" taking place between the federal government and Indigenous leaders, which could alter how much the government eventually offers. 

The $40 billion would be split "roughly" evenly between compensation for children and families who were once in the system, and long-term changes to the child welfare system.

Miller said the goal of those changes is "to make sure we are not repeating the model that has ripped children from their families into care."

The parties have agreed to negotiate until a self-imposed deadline of Dec. 31.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, has been trying to get the federal government to compensate First Nations children since 2007. (Simon Gohier/CBC)

If a final deal isn't reached, they could be heading back to court to hear the federal government's appeal of a Federal Court ruling, which upheld the tribunal order. The parties agreed to put litigation on hold while they try to strike an agreement.

Blackstock, who filed the original complaint with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in 2007, said the fight won't be over until discrimination against First Nations children ends. 

"If we can stop it, it will be the first time since Confederation that a generation of First Nations kids don't have to grow up spending their whole childhood trying to be treated equally as other kids in public services," she said. 

'Money does not mean justice'

The AFN welcomed the government's commitment.

"There's not enough money ever to repair the harms that the system has done to people," said AFN Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse, who is in the negotiations.

"I don't think any amount of money is ever going to change that brokenness ... But it shows that there was harm done and we have to find a path forward."

It was the AFN that in 2020 filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking compensation for Indigenous children and families harmed by the child welfare system.

"The magnitude of the proposed compensation package is a testament to how many of our children were ripped from their families and communities," said AFN Chief RoseAnne Archibald in a media statement. 

"Money does not mean justice. However, it signals that we are on the healing path forward as we finalize long term reform to ensure we meet our vision of children surrounded by the love and care of their families, living in safe and vibrant communities."

With files from Nick Boisvert