Federal Court approves $23-billion settlement for First Nations child welfare discrimination

Indigenous Children's Rights Activist Cindy Blackstock

By Jeremy Appel

(ANNews) – Canada’s Federal Court has approved a $23-billion settlement agreement to compensate First Nations children and their families for a chronically underfunded child welfare system. 

The ruling is a landmark in implementing Jordan’s Principle, which states that funding First Nations services comes first before sorting out any jurisdictional disputes between various orders of government about who is responsible for the funding. 

In 2019, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the federal government to pay $40,000 per person impacted — the largest possible settlement for a human rights violation. 

The federal government initially challenged that settlement before backtracking in the face of a class action lawsuit from the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and negotiating a deal. 

That settlement, which compensates more than 300,000 First Nations people, was approved by the tribunal earlier this year. 

Noting that no money will ever be enough to compensate for the harms done to First Nations children, AFN Interim National Chief Joanna Bernard said in an Oct. 23 news release that the settlement nonetheless “represents acknowledgment of those harms and decades of wrongdoing,” which constitutes a “step towards healing for those affected and ensuring this is never repeated through upcoming long-term reform measures to the system.”

AFN Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse, who was the AFN’s lead negotiator, called the federal court hearings a “culmination of a years-long process to secure recognition of the harms done by Canada to First Nations children and families.”

One of the lead plaintiffs, Zacheus Trout of Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba, told CBC News that the decision left him feeling “overwhelmed” and “speechless.”

“I hope this brings a change of how we look at Indigenous people and how we can move forward, reconciling all the differences between non-Indigenous and the Indigenous people right across Canada,” said Trout. “It’s history that’s been made here today.”

In 2021, Trout filed a lawsuit against the federal government for failing to provide appropriate health support for his two children, Sanaye and Jacob. Both children died before they turned 10 as a result of Batten disease — a rare neurological condition. 

“We do not need to be treated as third class citizens in this country and I hope this makes a big statement for the future generations to come,” he said of the settlement. 

Jonavon Meawasige told the CBC about his brother Jeremy, who requires care 24 hours a day, due to cerebral palsy, autism, spinal curvature and hydrocephalus — a debilitating accumulation of spinal fluid in the brain. 

Their mother, Maurina Beadle, took the feds to court in 2013, because they would only pay a portion of Jeremy’s health-care costs, and won. 

Jonavan Meawasige said Beadle, who died in 2019, “would have been really proud of the decision today.”

“I hope this will keep Jeremy inside his home and keep him loved and keep him with the people that he needs to be with,” said Jonavan. 

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said the government has recognized the “significant harm that discrimination — I would say systemically racist funding —  results in.”

Plaintiff lawyer David Sterns told the CBC that the payments will unlikely be dispersed until the new year, but he added that he is “thrilled” by the fact that they are coming. 

“This could make the difference between having a shelter for some people or being homeless for some people,” he said.

Lawyer Cindy Blackstock, who initiated the fight for federal compensation in 2007, acknowledged that the settlement could serve as “a page turner for the government” in an Oct. 24 interview with the CBC’s Power and Politics

Before the compensation is paid, however, mental health and addictions services in Indigenous communities need to have funding in place for “surge capacity … before, during and after the compensation.” 

Blackstock said, ultimately, the government must be held accountable for its commitments.

“We all collectively need to keep our eye on Canada and demand that they stop this discrimination,” she said.

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