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Government, Indigenous groups still negotiating child welfare funding as deadline arrives

Parties to a long-standing dispute over the Indigenous child welfare system are still negotiating as their self-imposed deadline comes and goes.

In its recent economic statement, issued earlier this month, the federal government earmarked $40 billion for First Nations child welfare. The government set aside the money to cover the cost of settling a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order and class action lawsuits related to the on-reserve First Nations child welfare system, and to fund long-term reforms to the system.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said at the time that the amount was not final and that “very fragile discussions” were still “underway.” The federal government said the money was to be split, with roughly half going to compensation and the rest going to reforms.

The dispute revolves around federal funding for the child welfare system on reserves. It started in 2007, when the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal alleging that the system was flawed and discriminated against First Nations children.

The tribunal issued a decision in 2016 concluding that the federal government did discriminate against First Nations children by underfunding the on-reserve child welfare system. It ordered the government to pay compensation of $40,000 to every child affected by gaps in the on-reserve child welfare system from at least Jan. 1, 2006, to a date to be determined by the tribunal.

A federal court upheld that decision this year. The government appealed but that appeal is on pause while negotiations continue.

‘We remain optimistic’

The parties to the dispute, which include the federal government on one side and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and AFN on the other, agreed to negotiate until a self-imposed deadline of Dec. 31.

In emails to CBC, the parties said they are still in talks.

“Negotiations with Canada on the details of the compensation agreement are ongoing,” Cindy Woodhouse, the AFN regional chief for Manitoba, said in a media statement.

“We remain optimistic that we will reach a settlement that will benefit the thousands of Indigenous children and families who were negatively impacted by the child welfare system, and that will enable the revamping of this system so that history does not continue to repeat itself for our Indigenous families and communities.”

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, told CBC in an email that she has no updates on the state of negotiations.

government indigenous groups still negotiating child welfare funding as deadline arrives
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. (CBC)

A spokesperson for the Department of Indigenous Services told CBC News they couldn’t comment on negotiations.

“As announced on October 29, 2021, the objective of the discussions is to reach a global resolution on compensation to First Nations children and long-term reform,” the statement reads. 

“As these negotiations are still ongoing, we cannot comment further but hope to provide updates in the near future.”

A representative for former senator Murray Sinclair, who is chairing the negotiations, declined to comment.

None of the parties indicated they’ll be heading back to court now that the deadline has arrived.

Miller has said there are still many issues to sort out.

“There’s issues of costing, there’s issues of sorting out amongst the parties what that proper allotment of compensation is, and moving forward on a number of issues that are near and dear to the parties,” Miller told a news conference earlier this year.

Miller credited Sinclair with keeping the talks from falling apart.

Blackstock said following the government’s appeal in October that if a deal isn’t reached, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society would go to expedited legal hearings on the case.

“What we said is we’re willing to press pause, but you have to agree to an expedited hearing schedule if we get into that room and it looks like you’re not going to stop the discrimination and we can’t come to an agreement,” she said.

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