July 16th, 2024

AFN national chief says child welfare reform deal reached with Ottawa

By Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press on July 9, 2024.

OTTAWA – The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said Tuesday that she has received a draft offer from Ottawa to overhaul Indigenous child-welfare systems, but insists she cannot say publicly how much money is on the table.

“This is on long-term reform,” said Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak in a statement to chiefs on Tuesday. “I’m very happy for the compensation here.”

The first day of the yearly meeting, which is Woodhouse Nepinak’s first since she became national chief in December, was expected to heavily focus on child welfare.

Ahead of the Montreal gathering, Woodhouse Nepinak was criticized by three AFN regional chiefs for leaving First Nations leaders out of negotiations with the federal government over the terms of child-welfare reforms. She has denied that charge.

She was also criticized for refusing to allow any resolutions on child welfare to be added to the assembly agenda. She insisted that’s because a special chiefs’ meeting to discuss the topic is scheduled this fall.

The reforms are part of a $43-billion settlement offer from Canada to the AFN, the result of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision that Ottawa discriminated against Indigenous kids by chronically underfunding child-welfare services in First Nations.

More than half of that money – $23 billion – is intended to compensate about 300,000 people harmed by a system that often placed kids in foster care instead of offering support to help families stay together.

The agreement also included an initial promise of $20 billion to reform child-welfare programs and address chronic problems.

In an interview with The Canadian Press last month, Woodhouse Nepinak said the amount would likely be more than that.

She told chiefs Tuesday that the current offer is privileged, so she can’t disclose the amount of money publicly, but said she thinks “it’s a fair offer.”

She also said regional chiefs have the details, and chiefs can discuss it amongst themselves.

“And let’s never lose sight of what this is all about: it’s about our children, and about our future,” she said.

The settlement agreement was the result of a human-rights complaint filed 17 years ago by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the AFN. The government fought against the complaint for years, but the human-rights tribunal finally issued a decision in 2016 confirming First Nations children had been the victims of discrimination.

The process of addressing decision continues eight years later, with the Federal Court approving a plan to distribute compensation to the children and families who were affected just last month.

Woodstock Nepinak has been leading negotiations with Ottawa over the plans and funding for reforms to the system.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Caring Society, said calculations from experts suggested $57 billion is needed to fully fix the system over the next 10 years, not including capital investments.

She was critical of the decision to keep the latest offer secret.

“Canada has a duty to consult with First Nations about their children. It ought to be disclosing all this stuff. It shouldn’t be dealing with this stuff in secret,” said Blackstock, who was present at the assembly.

She said the case could end up back in front of the tribunal if the deal isn’t good enough to end the discrimination.

“First Nations have been very good about putting solutions forward, so listen and act on those solutions and you’ll save money over the long run, and you’ll do the right thing for the country,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2024.

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