OTTAWA (AFP): Canada announced a $31.5 billion agreement on Tuesday to reform its discriminatory child welfare system and compensate Indigenous families who suffered because of it, in what an official called the country’s largest settlement.
The agreements-in-principle include $20 billion Canadian dollars ($15.7) for First Nations children who were removed from their families and caregivers and put into state care, typically schools meant to forcibly assimilate them.
The other $20 billion Canadian dollars will be earmarked for reforming the child and family services system over the next five years.
“No compensation amount can make up for the trauma people have experienced,” said Patty Hajdu, the Minister of Indigenous Services. “But these Agreements-in-Principle acknowledge to survivors and their families the harm and pain caused by the discrimination in funding and services.”
The deal, which stemmed from lawsuits brought by First Nations families against the Canadian government, acknowledges that “discriminatory underfunding” of child and family services in indigenous communities had inflicted suffering on those involved.
Despite making up less than eight percent of children under 14, Indigenous children account for more than half of those in Canada’s foster care, according to a 2016 census.
Over the past three decades, at least 150,000 Indigenous children were ripped from their homes and placed into one of 139 residential schools.
Thousands died, mostly from malnutrition, disease or neglect, in what a truth and reconciliation committee called “cultural genocide” in a 2015 report. Many others were physically or sexually abused.
On the heels of the discovery of more than 1,200 unmarked graves at these schools, Canada is starting to come to terms with the nationwide trauma.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller called Tuesday’s agreement “the largest settlement in Canadian history” at a videoed news conference.
The amount to be paid to each individual, as well as how and when, will be determined later in consultation with experts and the country’s largest Indigenous organization, the Assembly of First Nations, according to lawyers representing complainants in two class action cases.
“This settlement is historic and hopefully a turning point in this country’s work on reconciliation,” Robert Kugler, one of the lawyers, said in a statement. The amount, he added, “underscores the severity of the harm suffered, and will provide financial support to enable victims to better their lives going forward.”
The Canadian government has previously fought orders to compensate Indigenous families over systems it has admitted were discriminatory, including in an appeal filed last year seeking to overturn a landmark decision awarding billions to indigenous children.
Canada has said it believes the payments are necessary, but would rather iron out the details in talks.
Tuesday’s agreements-in-principle are expected to be finalized in the coming months.