Assembly of First Nations chiefs to vote on $20B child welfare deal

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald speaks during the AFN's last annual general meeting in Vancouver on July 5, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press - image credit)
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald speaks during the AFN's last annual general meeting in Vancouver on July 5, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press - image credit)

Assembly of First Nations chiefs are expected to hold votes this week that could affect the fates of tens of thousands of people waiting on a $20 billion child welfare settlement agreement reached with the federal government.

Two competing resolutions are expected to hit the floor at the annual December special chiefs assembly in Ottawa — one to officially support the deal, the other to renegotiate it.

"We don't want any children left behind," said Judy Wilson, kukpi7 (chief) of the Neskonlith Indian Band and secretary-treasurer of Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

WATCH | First time chiefs vote on $20B deal

Wilson is seconding a resolution moved by Council Chairperson Khelsilem of the Squamish Nation in British Columbia to compel the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to return to the negotiating table with Canada.

If passed, the resolution would force the AFN to drop its appeal of October's Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision rejecting the multi-billion dollar deal reached between Ottawa and the AFN and call on the federal government to do the same.

"That's really essential in ensuring we don't have to come back again for another court action," Wilson said.

'A golden opportunity to get it right'

The settlement agreement — which would resolve two class-action lawsuits — includes a clause that requires the tribunal's approval before it can be sent to Federal Court for a final sign-off.

The class action lawsuits were launched after the tribunal ruled Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding on-reserve child welfare services, and ordered Ottawa to provide compensation to children and families affected by the system.

A separate resolution, moved by Chief Patsy Corbiere of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation in Ontario and Chief Bob Gloade of Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia, calls on chiefs to stand by the final settlement agreement.

The votes offer AFN chiefs their first opportunity to have an official say on the deal, which was finalized between the AFN and federal government last summer.

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC
Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC

First Nations child advocate Cindy Blackstock said she welcomes the debate. She filed the original human rights complaint with the AFN in 2007 accusing Canada of underfunding the on-reserve child welfare system.

"This is a golden opportunity to get it right," said Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

Blackstock said the chiefs have a chance to preserve the best parts of the agreement while expanding compensation in areas where it fell short.

The deal excludes payments for children removed from their homes and placed in non-federally funded placements, and the estates of deceased caregiving parents and grandparents.

It also provides less money than the tribunal ordered Canada to pay to other victims of underfunded First Nations child and family services.

But the final settlement does guarantee $40,000 to each child removed from their homes, communities and families — and possibly more than the tribunal ordered, depending on the severity of harm experienced.

"There's lots of good things in that final settlement agreement," Blackstock said.

"But you can't have a final settlement agreement that is supposed to be justice for victims that disentitles some victims."

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

The resolution by B.C. chiefs also calls on the AFN to bring Blackstock into the negotiation talks.

Right now, she is involved only in discussions about another pool of $20 billion for long-term reform of the on-reserve child welfare system.

Parties considering whether to drop CHRT approval requirement

When asked for her views on the compensation deal, AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald deferred to the AFN's child welfare portfolio holder, Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse.

"First Nations have driven this process and I think First Nations' rights need to be respected," Woodhouse said.

"There's some confusion out there and I think we really have to bring it all together and have a fulsome discussion on the issue."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The parties involved in the final settlement agreement are thinking about decoupling the settlement from the tribunal by removing the clause that requires its approval, CBC News has learned.

If that happens, and if the chiefs vote to stay the course, then Ottawa and the AFN can proceed to seek the Federal Court's approval of the agreement while proceeding with a challenge of the tribunal on a separate legal track, according to sources who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

For Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, the focus is on making sure children are looked after and the people who are entitled to compensation get it.

"I don't think you can ever compensate (for) the loss," Daniels said.

"We can start somewhere and we've got to continue to work from there."