Ottawa announced Tuesdayit had secured agreements in principle to compensate First Nations children harmed by its underfunding of child welfare, revealing for the first time early details about what the historic arrangement will cover.
After six weeks of negotiating with the parties, which included the Assembly of First Nations, Chiefs of Ontario and lawyers for two related class-action lawsuits, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said the $40-billion settlement marks the largest in Canadian history.
"No amount of money can reverse the harms experienced by First Nations children," he told a news conference in Ottawa.
Of the billions earmarked to be spent on the matter — the figure was first reported as part of last month's fiscal update — $20 billion will pay for compensation, and the other $20 billion will be spent on reforming the system over five years.
Back in 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children who lived on reserve because of its chronic underfunding of family and child services in their communities, after a complaint was filed in 2007.
It also ruled the government's definition of Jordan's Principle — a measure stipulating Ottawa provide timely health, education and social services to First Nations children — was too narrow and needed expansion.
Those eligible to be compensated under the settlement arrangement announced Tuesday will be First Nations children living on reserve and in the Yukon who were removed from their homes between April 1, 1991, and March 31, 2022, along with their parents and caregivers.
Included will be those affected by the government's narrow definition of Jordan's Principle from Dec. 12, 2007 to Nov. 2, 2017, as well as First Nations children who couldn't access the services they needed between April 1, 1991 and Dec. 11, 2007.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said Tuesday the government intends to use the $40,000 originally awarded by the tribunal to affected children and their families as a floor for compensating those who are eligible, while it also believes some children will be entitled to receive more.
Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse was among those around the negotiating table, and said more than 200,000 children and their families will be affected by this settlement, which stems from government discrimination.
"This wasn't and isn't about parenting. It's in fact about poverty," she said Tuesday.
"And First Nations children being removed from their families and communities instead of being provided help with food, clothing or shelter."
Robert Kugler, one of the class-action lawyers involved in the matter, said an estimated 115,000 children were separated from their families and likely more than 100,000 were affected by the lack of access to services promised under Jordan's Principle.
Ottawa said final settlement agreements must still be negotiated over the coming months. It said money will flow once these agreements are reached and the necessary court and human rights orders have been made.
Lawyers said the Federal Court must first approve of the settlement and they hope a hearing takes place before the end of June.
The compensation talks that led to Tuesday's announcement had been chaired by former senator and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Murray Sinclair.
Ottawa announced negotiations would start last fall the same day that it filed a notice of appeal with the Federal Appeal Court, which Justice Minister David Lametti said Tuesday it would drop once final agreements over compensation were reached.
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada executive director Cindy Blackstock said Tuesday that the agreement in principle is an important first step, but noted how it was non-binding.
"These are simply words on paper," she said at a separate news conference.
"We need to commit ourselves to keeping watch on the government of Canada and holding it accountable until it lands some of these things."
The Child and Family Caring Society along with the Assembly of First Nations brought forward the initial 2007 human rights complaint that set off the 14-year battle over Ottawa's handling of child welfare for First Nations children.
Blackstock credited increased public pressure for the arrival of the agreements in principle, especially in light of First Nations uncovering the unmarked graves of children forced to attend former residential schools.
Politically, the Liberal government's decision to fight the tribunal orders in court has been roundly criticized by opposition and Indigenous leaders alike.
On Tuesday, the federal New Democrats expressed concern the agreements were non-binding, while the Conservatives criticized the Liberals for wasting years of time and money battling the matter in court instead of making more headway on reconciliation.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version reported that the eligibility period for compensation for First Nations children removed from their homes on reserve or in the Yukon ran until March 21, 2022. In fact, it is March 31, 2022.