As It Happens

NDP 'astonished' by government's challenge to compensation order for First Nations children

NDP candidate Charlie Angus says the government's response to the Human Rights Tribunal's ruling to compensate First Nations kids caught up in the on-reserve welfare system proves Justin Trudeau's approach to Indigenous relations is no different than those of governments that came before him.

Government was ordered to pay $40,000 to each child apprehended or taken from their homes on reserve

Charlie Angus rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 21, 2019 in Ottawa. Angus is currently running for re-election for the NDP for the riding of Timmins-James Bay. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)


Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is facing criticism after the federal government announced it would appeal a Human Rights Tribunal ruling about First Nations children harmed by underfunding of the on-reserve child welfare system.

In September, the tribunal ordered the federal government to pay $40,000 to each child — the maximum allowed under the Canadian Human Rights Act —  who was apprehended or taken from their homes on reserve, no matter what the reason.

In a statement released by his office, Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan said the government agrees that affected individuals should be compensated — but it wants time to "address important questions and considerations such as who is to be compensated and the role of the Tribunal."

Charlie Angus, NDP candidate in the riding of Timmins-James Bay, says that the government's response proves Trudeau's approach to Indigenous relations is similar to those of his predecessors, rather than the new approach to reconciliation he had previously promised.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal.

Mr. Angus, Justin Trudeau says time is needed to get this right. What do you say to Mr. Trudeau?

Well, I think Mr. Trudeau has had an enormous amount of time to block, to interfere, to use lawyers against the human rights tribunal. But what he's actually doing at court is, their filing says that if they have to stop recklessly discriminating against Indigenous children, it will cause irreparable harm.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's government is challenging a decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to compensate First Nation children for under-funding the on-reserve child welfare system. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

So Mr. Trudeau is not about getting this right. This is about the long and dismal pattern of the Trudeau government, the Harper government, the Chrétien government, going all the way back, of saying that they can decide whether or not they have to comply with basic obligations to children.

We are in the midst, as you very well know, of an election campaign, and mistakes have been made in the past. Mr. Trudeau acknowledged that and has before. Why not wait till the election period is over?

Well, Mr. Trudeau is not waiting. ... When the first ruling came down at the Human Rights Tribunal, we were fully hopeful Mr. Trudeau would accept it. Instead, they fought it every step of the way and the result of those four noncompliance orders was the death of over a 102 First Nation children in Ontario alone.

I think what people really need to understand is there's nothing theoretical about this. The broken foster care system is a system of hopelessness and abuse. And we lose children all the time in it. And every step of the way this government has opted for lawyers to fight against their obligations to ensure that every child, on reserve or off reserve, has access to fair services. And they will not meet those tests and they will fight.

$40,000 for destroyed lives? That's peanuts.- NDP candidate Charlie Angus

And so this is another tactic of going to the courts of using the immense power of the Canadian government to fight children who are in a situation that is very, very similar to what happened to previous generations in the residential schools.

This is a government that has said we are changing the way we communicate and deal with Indigenous communities in this country, [saying that] we're restoring those relationships, we're repairing those relationships.

We believed Mr. Trudeau in 2015 when he said he was going to do things differently. But this is the way it's been done in the Canadian government going back to Duncan Campbell Scott: that the federal government will not pay what's needed to offer the proper services to First Nation children.

And when a government is found guilty of willfully and recklessly discriminating against children, children who are dying in the system, then Mr. Trudeau has to do better.

There is a deadline the court says this has to be done by December.  What would Jagmeet Singh and the NDP do if they were in Mr. Trudeau's place?

What we've said from the beginning of this ruling is to send a very clear message: We will not appeal. Now let's sit down and get this right.

There is a big difference between saying we will not appeal and we will work with you to find a way to deal with this, and what [Trudeau's] doing.

And if we're looking at the compensation, these children are being offered — what, $40,000 for destroyed lives? That's peanuts. It's gonna be much smaller than the class action lawsuits that will one day come to this country.

And I've stood up and watched apologies to previous generations of children. I don't want us to have to apologize to this generation of children.

I want us to say to them we will get this right. Because the damage that's being done in this broken system, when you get close to it, and when you actually see what's happening, it's pretty hard to fathom that this could go on.

I'm embarrassed that our country continues to believe that they can get away with discriminating against children who are in such, such terrible conditions.- Angus

But what would you do, sir, differently, is the question.

Well the question is quite simple — is that yes, by Christmas we would get this figured out. And it's not rocket science here.

I mean, the shortfalls in the child welfare system are known. The reports have been done. It said the government doesn't want to meet their costs. And if they have to keep denying it, they're going to end up paying more in the long run.

It could be damaging to them politically to do what you say they are doing. Why do you think they're doing that in the middle of this campaign?

I am astounded that the Trudeau government would go down this road, particularly targeting [Indigneous advocate] Cindy Blackstock, who is seen by many as like the Martin Luther King of Canada. This shows how deep-seated the refusal to end the discrimination against Indigenous children is.

And I'm embarrassed that our country continues to believe that they can get away with discriminating into children who are in such, such terrible conditions.

And the deaths and the abuse and that that is ongoing and that everybody in the system knows about its reports are done and yet they could go to the Human Rights Tribunal and fight with lawyers to stop fairness for these children. It's not acceptable.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.