AFN chief tells chiefs there is a concept for a $47.8 billion child protection reform with Ottawa: source

AFN chief tells chiefs there is a concept for a .8 billion child protection reform with Ottawa: source
AFN chief tells chiefs there is a concept for a .8 billion child protection reform with Ottawa: source

MONTREAL — The head of the Assembly of First Nations has told tribal leaders that a draft deal with Ottawa on child protection reforms is worth $47.8 billion, a source present in the room said — more than double what was initially promised.

National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak announced that number to chiefs and their deputies Tuesday afternoon, said the source, who asked not to be identified because she was not authorized to release the details.

She also cited the political risks if the deal on the table is not accepted, the source said, confirming she wanted leaders to be able to discuss the offer before voting on it at a special meeting this fall.

The closed meeting, which media representatives were not allowed to attend, was part of the AFN’s annual general meeting held this week in Montreal.

Woodhouse Nepinak declined an interview about the matter.

Anispiragas Piragasanathar, spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said in a statement that negotiations are still ongoing.

“If an agreement is reached, First Nations parties will engage with their members across the country,” the statement said.

“Reaching an agreement with the First Nations parties would be an important milestone in the long-term reform of the program and would further our ongoing commitment to ensuring that discrimination ends.”

The federal government originally pledged $20 billion for long-term reforms to the child welfare system, but Woodhouse Nepinak recently told The Canadian Press that the deal with Ottawa would likely exceed that amount.

That was part of a $43 billion settlement proposal stemming from a Canadian Court of Human Rights ruling that Ottawa discriminated against Indigenous children by chronically underfunding First Nations child protection services.

The remaining $23 billion is set aside to compensate about 300,000 people harmed by a system that often places children in foster care instead of providing support to keep families together.

On Tuesday morning, during her publicly broadcast opening address to the chefs, Woodhouse Nepinak said she could not say publicly how much money was on the table. But she said she was “very happy” with the compensation.

The AFN originally joined forces with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to bring the human rights case. Its executive director, Cindy Blackstock, had called on Ottawa to spend a much higher amount on the reform effort.

She said Tuesday that expert calculations suggested $57 billion would be needed to fully repair the system over the next 10 years, excluding capital expenditures. And she criticized Woodhouse Nepinak and the federal government for keeping the latest offer secret.

In the run-up to the three-day meeting, the AFN’s negotiations with Ottawa were criticized by four regional chiefs representing more than half of Canada’s First Nations.

Last month, they wrote letters to Woodhouse Nepinak expressing concern that the deal was being done in secret.

Woodhouse Nepinak responded that this was not the case and that all chiefs could review the draft agreement before the vote scheduled for later this year.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree, addressing the meeting on Wednesday morning, said he could not provide details of the arrangement.

He referred questions to Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, who was not present. A spokesperson for the minister said Hajdu could not comment on the details of the agreement.

“I think we are close, I am told, and I look forward to us having an agreement and self-determination over the welfare of children within communities,” Anandasangaree told reporters.

“And I think as we get closer to a solution, we should leave it up to the parties to work this out.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press