Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 1: Child Welfare (1-5)

PM says he will apologize for First Nations child welfare discrimination

June 19, 2024

Official apology part of agreement feds made in $23B settlement agreement

Posted: Jun 19, 2024 7:25 PM EDT | Last Updated: June 20

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak on March 5, 2024 in Ottawa.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed in a June 17 letter to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak that he plans to make an official apology for discriminatory First Nations child welfare policies. (Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

CBC News: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to publicly apologize for the discrimination faced by First Nations children and their families because of the federal government’s child welfare policies, CBC News has learned.

Trudeau outlined the government’s plan for the apology in a June 17 letter to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak.

“I confirm that the Government of Canada is committed to delivering a public apology for the discriminatory conduct … and the past and ongoing harm it caused,” Trudeau wrote in the letter, obtained by CBC News.

The apology would fulfil one of the commitments the government made in a recently finalized $23 billion settlement agreement that looks to compensate First Nations people affected by federal policies that encouraged the removal of their children.

Under the deal, more than 300,000 First Nations children and family members will each receive tens of thousands of dollars because Ottawa chronically and knowingly underfunded First Nations child and family services on reserves and in the Yukon.

Woodhouse Nepanik told CBC News she’s been pressing Trudeau to apologize since she became national chief last December.

“I’m just glad the prime minister has committed to an apology,” Woodhouse Nepanik said. “There’s been a lot of damage done.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watches dancers perform at meetings with the Self Governing Indigenous Governments on May 2, 2024 in Gatineau, Que.
This is the first time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has personally promised to deliver a First Nations child welfare apology. (Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Woodhouse Nepanik said she plans to ask Trudeau to deliver the apology in the House of Commons when Parliament resumes after its summer break. 

“It’s important it be in the House of Commons because that’s where many of these policies were made,” she said. 

Consultations to take place on apology’s content, timing

Carolyn Buffalo says she broke down in tears when she read Trudeau’s letter.

The mother from Montana First Nation in Maskwacis, Alta., told CBC News she’s always wanted an apology for the way the federal government treated her son Noah, who has severe cerebral palsy and requires around-the-clock care.

“This is an important part of the healing for us,” Buffalo said.

Buffalo spent years battling Ottawa for medication and equipment that Noah’s doctors said he needed, such as wheelchairs.

Her family was told to move off reserve or put Noah, who is now 22, in foster care. 

“I want the prime minister to look Noah in the eye and give him tobacco, and tell him, ‘On behalf of Canada, I apologize for the harms you have suffered,'” she said.

Carolyn Buffalo says she's been waiting years for an apology from the prime minister for the way the federal government treated her son Noah.
Carolyn Buffalo fought for compensation for her 22-year-old son Noah Buffalo-Jackson, who has severe cerebral palsy and was denied essential services by Ottawa. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Trudeau says in the letter he’s asked Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and Justice Minister Arif Virani to lead consultations on the apology’s content.

Hajdu’s office confirmed it’s discussing with First Nations partners what the apology could look like and what steps need to be taken before it happens.

“This is an essential step on the path to reconciliation,” said Hajdu’s spokesperson Simon Ross.

Federal lawyers will work with the settlement agreement lawyers and other First Nations partners to seek their views on the apology’s content, timing and venue, according to Trudeau’s letter.

PM says Ottawa will fulfil promises in $23B settlement

The $23 billion First Nations child welfare compensation deal stems from a 2016 ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that found Canada engaged in wilful and reckless discrimination against First Nations children and families by failing to provide them with the same level of child and family services provided elsewhere.

In 2019, the tribunal ordered Canada to pay the maximum human rights penalty of $40,000 per First Nations child and family member.

Payments are expected to start rolling out early next year.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu holds up a gift of moccasins from Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse (second right) that Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu (second left) will lead consultations on a public apology with Justice Minister Arif Virani. (Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

“Addressing the harms suffered by First Nations children and families is at the heart of the agreement and a meaningful step in the reconciliation process,” Trudeau wrote.

“Canada is committed to the ongoing work to implement the final settlement and to compensating First Nations children and families.”

In addition to compensation, Ottawa also promised an additional $20 billion to reform First Nations child and family policies.

“This isn’t justice. It’s just the beginning,” Buffalo said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olivia Stefanovich, Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on X at @CBCOlivia. Reach out confidentially: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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