Talks set to start Monday between Indigenous leaders and the federal government about a possible settlement over court-ordered compensation to First Nations children could signal the clearing of the road to reconciliation, the Assembly of First Nations National chief said Saturday.
RoseAnne Archibald said the talks are scheduled to last until December and Indigenous leaders are prepared to meet face-to-face with government representatives.
The federal government filed notice it plans to challenge in the Federal Court of Appeal a ruling ordering Ottawa to pay compensation to First Nations children removed from their homes, but also said the parties have agreed to work towards a resolution by December.
“We are closer than we have been previously,” said Archibald.
“So. that’s an important part of why the AFN executive committee, which is all the regional chiefs across Canada, has agreed to enter into these intense negotiations to see if we can get to a settlement that is fair.”
In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children by knowingly underfunding child and family services for those living on reserve.
In a joint statement Friday after the appeal was filed, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and Justice Minister David Lametti said the parties “have agreed to pause litigation” on the tribunal’s decision.
Archibald said she could not discuss in-depth details of the impending talks, but supported the human rights tribunal’s statement that the children were eligible for $40,000 in federal compensation.
The tribunal said each First Nations child, along with their parents or grandparents, who were separated because of this chronic underfunding were eligible to receive $40,000 in federal compensation, which was the maximum amount it could award.
It has been estimated some 54,000 children and their families could qualify, meaning Ottawa could be in line to pay more than $2 billion.
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Archibald said any federal compensation paid to Indigenous children removed from their homes would be a recognition of the harms that were caused, but does not make amends for the damage done in the process.
She said compensation does not equate to justice.
But the national chief said a compensation settlement would signal the government is on the path toward that goal as well as ending discrimination against First Nations children.
“Compensation is a legal recognition that you have been harmed and that you deserve to be compensated from that harm,” Archibald said. “If we can get to a settlement, this will signal we are on the right path.”
Archibald, elected national chief in July, said she has a “reasonable and fair” expectation the federal government and Indigenous nations will walk together toward reconciliation.
“That healing path forward together will be based upon concrete actions, more than it will be on discussions and words,” she said.
Indigenous groups have been highly critical of the federal government’s decision to appeal, with some welcoming the settlement talks, while others called it a stalling tactic.
“Our First Nations children are our most vital and valuable resource,” said Chief Bobby Cameron in a statement from Saskatchewan’s Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.
“This federal government has taken them from their homes and communities and then dragged them through years of litigation and court,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
B.C.’s First Nations Leadership Council, representing the political wing of the province’s three major Indigenous organizations, said in a statement the government must fulfill its obligations to the children.
“Nothing changes if nothing changes, and we demand this government put their money where their mouth is,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “Stop fighting First Nations kids in court, uphold our rights, and take action that supports meaningful and real reconciliation.”