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  • Writer's pictureThe Pendulum

Canadian Reparations and Welfare Reform

Hannah Roebuck

The Canadian federal government and First Nations leaders have come to a historic $40 billion agreement-in-principle to compensate young people harmed by Canada's discriminatory child welfare system and to reform the system that tore First Nations children from their communities for decades. The agreement allocates $20 billion for compensation and $20 billion for long-term reform of the on-reserve child welfare system. If the agreement is approved, the financial settlement would be the largest of its kind in Canadian history.

In 2007 the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act. It alleged that the federal government discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding the on-reserve child welfare system and refusing to comply with Jordan's Principle, a policy stating that the needs of a First Nations child requiring a government service take precedence over jurisdictional disputes over who or what entity pays for that service. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government discriminated against First Nations children and reported that Canada's actions led to "trauma and harm to the highest degree, causing pain and suffering”. The tribunal ordered the Canadian federal government to pay $40,000 to each child and primary guardian affected by the on-reserve child welfare system, the maximum amount allowed under the Canadian Human Rights Act. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal also directed the federal government to pay $40,000 to all First Nations children and their primary guardians who were denied services or forced to leave home. Children and their primary guardians left with no choice in order to access services covered by Jordan's Principle from its inception on December 12, 2007 to November 2, 2017, when the tribunal ordered Canada to change its definition of Jordan's Principle and review previously denied requests. In the fall of 2019, the federal government submitted an application to the Federal Court to dismiss the tribunal's order and the claim for compensation. That decision was widely condemned by First Nations leaders, human rights organizations, and advocacy groups across the country. At the time, the government said it did not oppose compensation, but it maintained that the tribunal did not have the proper jurisdiction to order specific compensation through a class action lawsuit. Regardless, in September 2021, the Federal Court dismissed the government's judicial review application.

The government will not drop its Federal Court appeal until the $40 billion agreement-in-principle is approved. If approved, likely in late 2022, the current agreement-in-principle could end a 15-year legal battle and provide compensation for tens of thousands of people.

This deal is an important step in addressing the cultural genocide and discrimination unleashed against First Nations by the Canadian government. From 1831 to 1998, the government separated around 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and sent them to residential schools where they faced indoctrination, compounded trauma, and physical and sexual abuse. At least 6,000 Indigenous students died, although some officials say that number could be higher. As a result of the legacy of residential schools, First Nations children are more than 17 times more likely to be in foster care than Canadian children. Even further, after First Nations children age out of the system at 18, they are often left without state support to find safe housing, employment, education opportunities, or even the most basic care services. The current agreement-in-principle is an acknowledgment that even after the closure of residential schools, the Canadian child welfare system was better designed and resourced to remove First Nations children from their families than to support them in place.

Although this agreement-in-principle does not rectify or erase the trauma, pain, or state-sanctioned violence inflicted upon First Nations families and children in Canada, it is a significant step toward accountability. Canada’s decision has the possibility to start a global conversation about reparations, state responsibility, and colonial legacy, but the influence of this agreement in the Americas and beyond is yet to be seen.

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