The Current

'We want to fix this': Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on Sixties Scoop ruling

An Ontario judge has ruled the federal government failed in its duty to protect Indigenous children from harm in what's known as the Sixties Scoop. The Current hears from Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett on what comes next.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says the government wants to right the wrong over actions taken in the Sixties Scoop. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

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On Feb. 14 — after an eight-year legal battle — an Ontario Supreme Court judge ruled the government violated its "duty to care" when it failed to protect the cultural identity of the Indigenous children removed from their families and communities.

The 16,000 Indigenous children were placed in non-Indigenous homes in Ontario during the 1960s — that action by the federal government has come to be known as the Sixties Scoop.

Lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit Chief Marcia Brown Martel calls the ruling "a great day in Canada when Canada's judicial system chooses to say that our children are so valuable, and sacred and precious, that they will be protected by law."

Chief Brown Martel says resolution moving forward must ensure that "Sixties Scoop survivors is acknowledged as a part of Canada's history. It must be permanently removed from the dark. "

The plaintiffs are seeking $1.3 billion dollars in damages and negotiating that settlement is the next part of the process.

The Current's guest host Laura Lynch speaks with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett to find out what's next in the process.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Laura Lynch: Minister Bennett, what's the government's next step in addressing a settlement here?

Carolyn Bennett: I think as Chief Brown said the next step is to sit down and have a conversation about the things that really matter to the survivors and I think she's articulated them very well. That to be inclusive and to make sure that the history is well known, the supports for healing and the prevention of never again.

The understanding now is how important secure personal cultural identity is. How that feeds into self-esteem and resilience and a sense of control over your life and that when that piece is taken from you, serious harm is done and that's what the federal government is saying. We acknowledge that harm was done and we want to right those wrongs.

LL: You say that's what the government is saying but it's also what a judge had to say which is what is now going to cause this negotiation to go forward. Let's just be clear. Is your government going to appeal the decision?

CB: We have no intention of going back to court. In fact, Laura, we've been trying to get all of these cases out of court really since we formed government.
Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel, who is the lead plaintiff in an Ontario class-action Sixties Scoop suit, was taken from her home community north of North Bay, Ont., in 1967. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

LL: If you want to get these cases out of court though there are other class actions similar to this that are waiting to be certified. Are you now saying that you will not contest those claims?

CB: Well I think what we're saying is that we hope that people don't feel they have to go to court because we want to sit down at the table with people who obviously have a history where harm was done and we want to be able to — as Chief Brown said — we want to be able to hear from people. We understand how serious this is when people are taken away from their language and culture.

LL: I just want to be clear here because you say you don't want them to go to court but it takes two to make a lawsuit. So are you saying they should now just come to the table with you? You will negotiate with them instead of court?

CB: I think that's what we've been trying to do over the past year, Laura, is to try and encourage as many people to come to the table. It takes two to get out of court. And we've been trying to do that and we've been very successful. There's rightfully cynicism. There's rightfully a history. And we want people to know that we have a real commitment to reconciliation that is about dialogue — instead of a negotiation, instead of litigation.

LL: Now minister, the judge wrote in his decision the evidence for the plaintiffs was insurmountable, that some of the government's submissions were "odd and insulting." How do you explain the government's legal actions toward this case?

CB: As critic, I met with Sixties Scoop people. I certainly believe as the judge did that it was a clear case that harm had been done and that we needed to settle this and right the wrongs which is really what our government's been trying to do from the beginning. We want to fix this.

LL: But the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs Jeffery Wilson said there had been numerous attempts to negotiate with the government. The government refused and spent all these years trying to delay and get the case dismissed.

CB: I must say that in my experience as minister that we needed and wanted to get to the table to negotiate. That is completely different than having it dismissed ... This is from our heart. We know this has to be fixed and we want to do it.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry.