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Child Welfare (1-5)

More health supports needed as billions in child welfare compensation set to roll out: advocates

June 26, 2024

According to a survey, survivors of the child welfare system want help ‘with their experiences and challenges’ and ‘continued support after compensation.’ Photo: APTN. 

APTN News: Advocates for survivors of the child welfare system say more support is needed across the country as $23 billion in compensation is set to roll out.

More than 150,000 children and caregivers who went through the child welfare system on reserve will each receive $40,000 in compensation for being discriminated against by the federal government while living on reserve.

“First Nations children should have never endured such discrimination,” said Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC), “and although no monetary figure can remove the lasting scars of trauma, the pain of separation, and loss of identity, this money can help provide the necessary resources for healing, restoration, and empowerment.”

Survivors and caregivers will have to apply for the compensation that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) says will be available in about six months.

The Federal Court approved the compensation distribution plan on June 20 as part of the Final Settlement Agreement reached by the AFN and Ottawa in 2023.

It is the result of two class action lawsuits dealing with on-reserve child welfare services and Jordan’s Principle, a program supposed to ensure First Nations children receive the same level of care as those living off reserve.

The case is also tied to a discrimination complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT).

In 2016, the CHRT ruled that Canada “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against First Nations children on reserve by underfunding the programs meant to help and support them. The two-person panel awarded each child and caregiver the maximum allowed under the Human Rights Act – $40,000.

But one of the concerns about the compensation process expressed by the AMC, a political organization that represents 62 First Nations in Manitoba, “is the glaring shortage of mental health professionals available to First Nations.”

Services to help survivors were recommended by the Assembly Seven Generations (AG7), a not-for-profit grassroots group that studies issues affecting Indigenous young people.

The group asked survivors what they hoped for as the compensation deal was being negotiated.

The results of its survey, released in December 2021, revealed survivors wanted “mental health supports and navigational assistance to help youth apply for compensation” because “talking to lawyers and government employees can be very triggering for First Nations youth.”

Survivors also said it was “essential” they received help filling out forms and “getting access to files and birth certificates.”

They wanted mental health support “to help with their experiences and challenges” and “continued support after compensation.”

The report called Children Back, Land Back also said the youth “should be offered awareness training about predatory banks and financial institutions, like those that swindled compensation from residential school survivors.”

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and one of the main plaintiffs in the CHRT case against the government, said she was also advocating for these measures.

“We’re already dealing with a higher-risk population, and we’re dealing with a scenario where things like mental health services in First Nations communities, particularly for younger people, there’s a real scarcity,” she said in an interview.

“And there’s also a scarcity of addiction services,” she added. “So, what we’ve been saying is there ought to be resources provided to be able to hire more of these people, in mental health and addiction and in other services, if necessary, for the First Nations, including tribal policing, youth centres, those kinds of things.”

APTN News asked Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) about the resources that will be available.

“Canada committed to supporting the provision of safe and culturally informed health supports to claimants, class members and their families throughout the claims process to mitigate any impacts of re-traumatization as they navigate the compensation process,” said an emailed response from ISC.

“This will help claimants access trauma-informed health and cultural supports, mental health counselling delivered by regulated health professionals (such as psychologists and social workers), and a dedicated helpline.”

The ISC spokesperson didn’t say how many support staff would be available.

Instead, it said, “an Indigenous organization will also be identified by Parties and appointed by the Federal Court to establish a dedicated youth-specific support line that would provide counselling services for youth and young adult class members.”

According to Blackstock, those services should be in place prior to compensation being handed out.

“We always said we don’t want (the compensation) held up, for any reason,” she said, “but what we do want is to make sure that, at least, like I feel the support stuff is, too, very late in a day that it’s getting any attention.

“The plan, frankly, should have been developed over a year ago. It wasn’t done.”

According to the AMC, Deloitte, the claims administrator, has only 12 “navigators” per province and Yukon.

This “fails to meet the needs of the numerous claimants in the (ISC) database,” said AMC. “The database reveals a staggering 150,000 eligible claimants classified as Removed Children – 43,000 more than initially estimated.”

Deloitte said on its website that survivors “will have access to Claims Helpers, at no cost, to provide virtual or in-person support to complete the Claim Form and to connect with local services and wellness resources.”

Deloitte didn’t say how many “claims helpers” would be available to help families.

For more information, click here: First Nations Child and Family Services and Jordan’s Principle Settlement

AFN executive raises questions about handling of negotiations 

On top of the $23 billion in compensation, another $20 billion was negotiated with Canada to fix the First Nations child welfare system, including how to stop discrimination and properly implement and fund Jordan’s Principle.

This reform plan is still in the negotiating phase between the AFN and Ottawa.

The Canadian Press has reported that three members of the AFN executive committee wrote to National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak in early June accusing her of overstepping the AFN’s mandate by making decisions that will directly affect children and families without consent.

They also accuse the AFN of attempting to sideline Blackstock and her organization that had a part in bringing about a $40-billion settlement to address the matter.

The chiefs, representing First Nations in Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Quebec-Labrador, said in a letter to the national chief that the organization is not being transparent in its negotiations for a final settlement agreement with Canada on First Nations child and family services.

Regional Chiefs Bobby Cameron, Terry Teegee and Ghislain Picard also said in the letter that AFN’s legal counsel are attempting to exclude the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society from the process altogether.

APTN has not seen the letter.

Any agreement with Ottawa must be approved by the AFN’s chiefs in assembly.

The AFN declined to answer questions about the issue and sent a statement instead.

“The AFN, as one of the Parties to the legal proceedings, will fulfill its mandate to negotiate a settlement agreement and present that agreement to the First Nations-in-Assembly for final instructions and/or approval,” said an email from Woodhouse Nepinak’s office.

“We will continue to focus on our responsibility to advocate for the best possible outcome for First Nations.”

Cameron, Teegee and Picard did not respond to APTN’s requests for comment.

Blackstock said she was at the negotiating table but left and filed a non-compliance motion with the tribunal.

“The agreement in principle, where we negotiated it in 2021 for Canada, included a work plan on Jordan’s Principle because they were already non-compliant then. And the non-compliance was trending worse so they agree that we negotiated this work plan, they agreed to fund it and then they didn’t do it,” she said of Ottawa.

“We had to step outside of the agreement-in-principle to bring the non-combined order against the federal government.”

With files from the Canadian Press.

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