Implementation will be key to First Nation child welfare agreement, says advocate
Agreement-in-principle will see $40 million going to child welfare reform and those who were harmed by system
A historic $40-billion agreement-in-principle between the federal government and First Nations leaders is a big step in the direction for reconciliation, according to Cindy Blackstock, but she's still waiting to see action.
"I have been around a long time and I have seen a lot of good statements by government," Blackstock told Matt Galloway on The Current.
Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and a professor at McGill University's School of Social Work. Blackstock filed a human rights complaint against Canada in 2007, which eventually led to this agreement-in-principle.
"It's not the good words that have been the problem, it's the implementation that has been the problem."
The non-binding agreement sets aside $20 billion for compensation for young people harmed by Canada's discriminatory child welfare system and $20 billion for long-term reform of the on-reserve child welfare system.
Compensation will be made available to First Nations people on-reserve who were removed from their homes as children between April 1, 1991 and March 31, 2022, as well as those who were removed by the Yukon child welfare system during that same time period.
Blackstock says that First Nations children are overrepresented in the child welfare system, which she says is connected to poor housing, addictions, poverty and multi-generational trauma. And she says that's where the money needs to go.
"What we need to see is actual programs at the community to address those drivers, because that's the fire that results in the overrepresentation."
She said that money also needs to go to young people who are aging out of the system.
"There was no money to support [First Nations children]. Now that's going to change, hopefully, if the government lands this agreement on April 1, and that young people up to and including age 25 will receive those supports."
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said she is hopeful that will happen by the end of the year.
"This will be a First Nations led process," said Hajdu.
"We are very cognizant that compensation needs to be done in a way that doesn't retraumatize people, that is led by Indigenous and First Nations leaders so that the process is fair, it's equitable and it's compassionate."
Hajdu said that deciding how that money is used will also be Indigenous led, and may be different for each community.
"That is the hard work that needs to happen, and it will be indigenous led. It will be specific to First Nations communities."
The human rights complaint was made in 2007 by Blackstock, who said the agreement took a long time because the federal government wasn't willing to learn from mistakes. Hajdu said she hopes that won't happen again.
"I hope this is a lesson that the federal government will not have to learn again and that we will continue to focus on equity and funding and continue to focus on systems that don't discriminate so that we don't find ourselves in this situation again," said Hajdu.
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme thinks it's a step in the right direction, and one his Saskatchewan community has already taken.
In July 2021, Cowessess First Nation reclaimed its right to look after its own children by signing a co-ordination agreement with the province and the federal government.
It gave Cowessess First Nation decision-making power over its children and youth.
"We have to make sure that the children and adults that endured this, that are living today, that are still trying to overcome their intergenerational [trauma], that we compensate them, that we apologize to them, that we tell them we're going to do better," said Delorme.
"Secondly … how do we reform? How do we show these children and young adults that change is coming?"
Delorme said he's already seen improvements in his community since July, and he thinks that can happen across the country.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
"Cowessess First Nation is one that is open to sharing. We have hiccups. We've made little, minor mistakes, but overall the success is overwhelming."
Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Arianne Robinson, and Matt Meuse.