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AFN national head says agreement reached on child protection reform with Ottawa

AFN national head says agreement reached on child protection reform with Ottawa
AFN national head says agreement reached on child protection reform with Ottawa

OTTAWA — The national leader of the Assembly of First Nations said Tuesday she has received a draft proposal from Ottawa to reform First Nations child protection systems, but stressed she cannot publicly say how much money is on the table.

OTTAWA — The national leader of the Assembly of First Nations said Tuesday she has received a draft proposal from Ottawa to reform First Nations child protection systems, but stressed she cannot publicly say how much money is on the table.

“This is a long-term reform,” Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said in a statement to the chiefs on Tuesday. “I am very pleased with the compensation here.”

The first day of the annual meeting, the first for Woodhouse Nepinak since she became national leader in December, was expected to focus on child welfare.

A plenary session on the long-term reform and compensation updates was held behind closed doors. Only the leaders or their deputies were allowed to be present in the room during the update and the media had to leave.

Before the Montreal meeting, Woodhouse Nepinak was criticized by three AFN regional leaders for leaving First Nations leaders out of negotiations with the federal government over the terms of child welfare reforms. She has denied the accusation.

She was also criticized for refusing to add resolutions on child welfare to the meeting’s agenda, insisting that this was because a special meeting of the chiefs was scheduled for this fall to discuss the issue.

The reforms are part of a $43 billion settlement proposal Canada has made to the AFN, following a ruling by the Canadian Court of Human Rights that Ottawa discriminates against Indigenous children by chronically underfunding First Nations child protection services.

More than half of that money — $23 billion — is intended to compensate about 300,000 people harmed by a system that often placed children in foster care instead of providing support to keep families together.

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

Woodhouse Nepinak said in an interview with The Canadian Press last month that the amount is likely higher.

On Tuesday, she told leaders that the current offer is privileged and that she is therefore not allowed to disclose the amount, but said she believes it is “a fair offer.”

She also said that regional leaders have the details and can discuss them among themselves.

“And let us never lose sight of what this is all about: it’s about our children and 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 the complaint for years, but in 2016 the Human Rights Tribunal finally ruled that First Nations children were victims of discrimination.

Eight years later, the ruling is still being debated. Last month, the Federal Court approved a plan to provide compensation to the children and families affected.

Woodstock Nepinak is leading negotiations with Ottawa on plans and funding for system reforms.

According to Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Caring Society, expert calculations suggest that $57 billion will be needed to fully repair the system over the next 10 years, excluding capital expenditures.

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 should make all of these matters public. It should not be doing these matters in secret,” said Blackstock, who attended the meeting.

She said the case could go back to court if the deal is not good enough to end the discrimination.

“First Nations are very good at coming up with solutions. So listen to those solutions and take action. In the long run, you’ll save money and do the right thing for the country,” she said.

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

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press