January 28, 2020

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Indigenous child-welfare ruling should be heeded

Editorial

Jagmeet Singh wants the Trudeau government to walk the talk on Indigenous affairs. And in a scenario where the minority-government Liberals will need partners, Mr. Singh’s prodding should not be easily dismissed.

Some observers might be surprised the Liberals need a nudge from Mr. Singh to drop its appeal of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that ordered Ottawa to financially compensate Indigenous children and their families who were separated by a chronically underfunded child-welfare system.

After all, Justin Trudeau has often repeated his party’s commitment to Indigenous people. His speech in Winnipeg two days before the Oct. 21 election was typical of his past comments on reconciliation: "We are doing it in a way that is grounded in respect and partnership, because that’s what Indigenous Canadians deserve from their government."

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh challenged the federal Liberal government to drop its appeal of the tribunal’s decision. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh challenged the federal Liberal government to drop its appeal of the tribunal’s decision. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

As Liberal leader, Trudeau had previously pledged to implement the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Liberal budget in 2016 earmarked $8 billion over five years to improve the living standards of Indigenous people.

Those weighty commitments towards reconciliation are why many people were surprised when, on Oct. 4, the federal government announced it would appeal a ruling by the rights tribunal that cited discrimination against children living on reserves who needed help from child welfare agencies.

The crux of the issue was that child-welfare services available to on-reserve children were woefully underfunded compared to provincially funded services available off-reserve. The imbalance led to a mass removal of Indigenous children from their parents in a system Indigenous leaders say had more First Nations kids living in foster care than at the height of the residential-schools era.

The tribunal awarded $40,000 for each child unnecessarily taken away from his or her family since Jan. 1, 2006 and another $40,000 for each of their parents or grandparents.

An estimated 54,000 children throughout the country would be be available for compensation. Manitoba currently has 11,000 children in care and more than 90 per cent are Indigenous children.

On Oct. 30, Mr. Singh challenged the Trudeau government to "immediately drop" the government’s appeal of the tribunal’s decision. The NDP leader stopped short of saying it was an essential condition of using his party’s 24 seats to support the Liberals on future issues. Rather, he called it "a challenge" and said "we’re going to put public pressure on this."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he agrees with the need for compensation, but the deadline to come up with a plan is not enough time. (David Kawai / Bloomberg files)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he agrees with the need for compensation, but the deadline to come up with a plan is not enough time. (David Kawai / Bloomberg files)

For their part, the Liberals said their decision to appeal the tribunal’s ruling should not be mistaken as opposition. Mr. Trudeau said he agrees with the overall finding of the need for compensation, but that the tribunal’s Dec. 10 deadline to come up with a compensation plan is not enough time to get it right.

It’s clear the government did not require Mr. Singh to point out the importance of the tribunal’s ruling. But in the fledgling manoeuvring underway around the new minority government, it can be astute to welcome political opponents as partners, at least on individual issues upon which both parties agree.

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Singh are on the same side on this matter. Together, they can work towards getting cheques in the mail as long-overdue compensation for victims of an unfair child-welfare system.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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