A $20-billion settlement agreement compensating First Nations people harmed by child welfare systems will not extend to NWT residents, the territory says.
The federal settlement, with the Assembly of First Nations and plaintiffs in two class-action cases, involves people affected by inadequate and often discriminatory child welfare policies.
The settlement will provide compensation upward of $40,000 to people living on reserve and in the Yukon who were removed from their homes under the federal First Nations Child and Family Services program between April 1991 and March 2022.
Compensation is also provided to children who received inadequate services because of the federal government’s narrow definition of Jordan’s Principle, a policy designed to ensure First Nations children have access to public services when they need them.
Until 2017, the principle was applied only in cases involving jurisdictional disputes, and not those in which First Nations children living on reserve were trying to access services from several providers.
Children who did not receive or were delayed in receiving an essential public service between April 1991 and December 2007 may also be eligible for compensation, as well as parents and grandparents of these children.
The federal government has said this is the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history.
The compensation agreement comes 15 years after the AFN and the First Nations Children and Family Caring Society filed an initial complaint accusing the Canadian government of underfunding child welfare services for First Nations children on reserve and in the Yukon.
The complainants held that the government’s actions were discriminatory under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
AFN Regional Chief for Manitoba Cindy Woodhouse was the lead negotiator on this file.
“’I’m very proud of our entire legal team and our plaintiffs, and the leadership and the people that prayed for us to get this done,” she told Cabin Radio.
The settlement must now be approved by the federal court and Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, after which more details about eligibility are expected.
Chief Woodhouse said she expects that information to be available in September and compensation to begin reaching First Nations next year.
NWT residents not eligible
The settlement agreement came in response to a lawsuit brought against the federal government’s First Nations Child and Family Services program.
This program funds First Nations child and family services agencies in provinces and the Yukon. In communities where these agencies do not exist, the program funds the provincial and Yukon governments to provide the same services.
Things are done differently in the NWT and Nunavut.
The federal Department of Finance provides funding to these territories through transfer payments to design and roll out their own territorial child welfare legislation, but the federal program has never funded or administered child welfare programs in either territory.
“Child and family services in the NWT are delivered by the GNWT in accordance with the NWT Child and Family Services Act,” Umesh Sutendra, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services, stated in an email.
That means NWT residents harmed by the GNWT’s federally funded – but territorially legislated – child welfare programs will not be eligible for compensation under the settlement.
When the agreement-in-principle was first announced, concerns were raised that NWT residents would not be eligible for much of the compensation to be offered.
The CBC reported that while residents would not be entitled to most of the compensation made available, they might be eligible for money associated with the narrow application of Jordan’s Principle.
The GNWT told Cabin Radio this month that this was “not applicable” to NWT residents.
“NWT First Nations only became eligible to apply for Jordan’s Principle funding in 2018, when the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal broadened the definition about First Nations children’s eligibility to accessing the products, services and supports they need,” Sutendra stated.
In a statement following January’s signing of the agreement-in-principle, Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine said he had held an emergency meeting with the AFN “on the impact of excluding the Northwest Territories,” the CBC reported.
Cabin Radio sought comment from the Dene Nation following last week’s settlement agreement, but communications coordinator Leanne Goose said nobody would be available to speak on the subject for several weeks.
The agreement-in-principle, signed six months prior to this final settlement, also allocated another $20 billion to long-term reform of First Nations Child and Family Services and its approach to Jordan’s Principle.
While this aspect of the agreement has not yet been finalized, Chief Woodhouse said immediate attention must be given to reforming these policies.
“We still have to have talks on long-term reform and shift our focus to that, right away,” she said.
Matthew Gutsch, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said the department is actively working toward making these changes.
“We are continuing to work together, along with other parties, on long-term reform of the First Nations Child and Family Services program and a renewed approach to Jordan’s Principle,” he said.
Reform in the NWT is under way, too.
A GNWT report released at the end of last year acknowledged that while 57 percent of youth in the territory are Indigenous, 98 percent of youth receiving child and family services are Indigenous.
Following a report released by a committee of MLAs this spring, the GNWT sought public feedback on proposed amendments to the territory’s Child and Family Services Act. The GNWT’s website states the results of that feedback session are under review.
Meanwhile, Indigenous governments in the territory have begun taking independent action.
Last fall, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation enacted its own child and family services legislation.
“There is nothing more important to a people than the continuity of culture and the well-being and care of its own children,” Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, chair of the corporation, said in a statement following the passing of the law.
The IRC was the first Indigenous government in the territory to take such action.