A Canadian court has paved the way for billions of dollars in compensation to be paid to First Nations children removed from their families and placed into state welfare after a judge on Wednesday dismissed a legal challenge from the federal government.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal had previously ruled that Ottawa “willfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserves by failing to properly fund child and family services. The neglect was found to have pushed many of the children into foster care, leading the tribunal in 2019 to order Ottawa to pay about $31,000 to each child removed from home.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government had sought a judicial review of the ruling , but Canada’s Federal Court dismissed the application and sided with the tribunal, saying Ottawa failed to show its compensation ruling was unreasonable. About 52 percent of Canadian children in foster care are Indigenous, government data show, far outpacing their share of the overall population.
The compensation also covers primary caregivers who were affected by the state’s actions. First Nations advocates estimated that up to 54,000 people could be covered.
“No one can seriously doubt that First Nations people are among the most disadvantaged and marginalized members of Canadian society,” Justice Paul Favel wrote in his decision. “The Tribunal was aware of this and reasonably attempted to remedy the discrimination while being attentive to the very different positions of the parties.”
Indigenous rights advocates heralded the court’s decision, which came on the eve of Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which honors the victims and survivors of the country’s brutal residential school system. The schools were set up in the 19th century to assimilate First Nations children and operated until the late 1990s.
“This was a complete win for kids,” Cindy Blackstock, a First Nations activist who filed the original human rights complaint more than a decade ago, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “Now the question becomes, will the federal government finally put down its sword and stop fighting First Nations children and treat them equally?”
The Canadian Department of Indigenous Services did not immediately return a request for comment. The federal government is reviewing the court’s decision, according to Reuters.
Trudeau has previously said his government doesn’t disagree with First Nations compensation but wants to make sure they are “getting that compensation right.” During the judicial review, the government argued that the tribunal had overstepped its jurisdiction in awarding collective compensation.
Trudeau, 49, came to power in 2015 by casting himself as a feminist climate warrior and champion of liberal values. Although his minority government was recently reelected, he has been buffeted by scandals, including revelations that he wore blackface makeup as a younger man.
Despite the international attention over the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on or near the sites of former residential schools that thrust Canada’s historical mistreatment of First Nations people into the spotlight, Indigenous issues drew scant attention in the election campaign.
Ottawa can still appeal Wednesday’s judgment and Indigenous advocates said that couldn’t be ruled out. “Their past behavior is they will appeal it,” said Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
The battle for compensation goes back at least 14 years, when Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations, filed the original claim. They argued that by underfunding child welfare on reserves, Ottawa’s actions amounted to racial discrimination.
“This is justice in action for First Nations children and families, however, nothing can replace the childhoods and connections to languages, lands and loved ones stolen by Canada’s discrimination,” RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement. “We have repeatedly made a reasonable and fair request that Canada stop fighting our kids in court.”
Amanda Coletta in Toronto contributed to this report.