Lawsuit seeks Manitoba First Nations child welfare compensation, end to apprehensions

WINNIPEG — First Nations leaders are suing the federal and Manitoba governments over what they say are far-reaching, damaging effects of the child welfare system.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and other plaintiffs are seeking $1 billion in compensation and an end to apprehensions they say are often based on poverty and racial bias.

They hope to have the lawsuit certified as a class action for children and their relatives, as well as communities, affected by apprehensions in the province since 1992.

"In the guise of providing care, Manitoba and Canada have employed discriminatory practices to destroy First Nations families, cultures and First Nations," reads the statement of claim filed in the Court of King's Bench on Thursday.

The statement of claim contains allegations that have not been proven in court and government officials had not yet reviewed it.

"As this matter is currently now before the courts, I won't be making any further comment about this specific lawsuit," Manitoba Families Minister Rochelle Squires said.

"But what I can say is that our government recognizes that there is a need for transformation in the (child welfare) system."

Nicolas Moquin, a spokesman for the federal department of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, said in a statement that Ottawa is aware of the lawsuit and other potential ones and "will continue to address the class actions with the respective parties."

The federal government reached a $20-billion settlement earlier this year, which is awaiting final court approval, to compensate children who were taken from their families on reserves across the country.

The new lawsuit is aimed at First Nations children who were seized off reserve in Manitoba, where the province has jurisdiction. Those are about 60 per cent of all cases in the province.

The federal government is being named as a defendant because it helped design and fund the provincial system, said Byron Williams, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers.

One of the plaintiffs, Roberta Godin, said she had her children and grandchildren taken away.

"I had to fight with all my strength for many years to be reunited with my children. I was successful, but the separation caused us great harm."

Roughly 80 per cent of children in care in Manitoba are First Nations. Indigenous leaders say that makes First Nations children more likely to face poverty, homelessness, mental health issues and involvement in the criminal justice system.

"There's so much damage that has been done that we cannot undo," said Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

Squires said the Progressive Conservative government has taken steps to reduce the number of children in care, such as ending birth alerts.

The alerts were used to notify hospitals and child-welfare agencies that a more thorough assessment was needed before a newborn could be discharged to a parent deemed high-risk.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press