Ottawa spent at least $8 million on First Nations child welfare case: documents

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February 6, 2020 at 1:52 pm

Newly released documents show Ottawa has spent more than $8 million in legal fees in the ongoing human rights case over First Nations child welfare.

Newly released documents show Ottawa has spent more than $8 million in legal fees in the ongoing human rights case over First Nations child welfare.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which filed the human rights complaint close to 13 years ago, obtained the documents through the Access to Information Act.

The total amount, first reported by APTN, differs from the $5.2 million cost estimate tabled recently in the House of Commons by Justice Minister David Lametti.

Blackstock says she believes the government has likely spent even more than $8 million on this case since she filed the complaint in 2007, and expressed disappointment that so much has been spent in court rather than immediately compensating Indigenous children and families.

“I was disappointed because I thought about how this money could have been better spent on actually ending the inequality.”

The Canadian Human Rights Commission ruled last fall that the federal government “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserves by not properly funding child and family services. As a result, children were sent away from their homes, families and reserves because, if they lived off-reserve, they would be covered by better-funded provincial systems. Others were removed from their families because authorities couldn’t provide supports to help keep them together.

The tribunal ordered Ottawa to compensate the children and their families.

The government has agreed its actions were discriminatory and has said compensation will be paid, but Ottawa is still challenging the ruling.

The $5.2 million cost estimate for legal work on this case was tabled in Parliament in response to a question about costs from NDP MP Charlie Angus.

The Justice Department stands by this figure.

Department spokeswoman Meaghen McKenna said in a statement Wednesday the amount includes all legal fees related to the case, including a calculation to account for services provided by lawyers, notaries and paralegals who are salaried public servants. The amounts account for spending up to Dec. 2, 2019.

But Angus says he is “deeply concerned” about what he charges is a deliberate misrepresentation of the actual amounts spent.

“David Lametti needs to tell us how much money is he going to spend and why is he misrepresenting basic facts that he’s obligated to be truthful about in something that is so important to the political discussion in the country, which is the future of these kids and the broken child welfare system,” Angus said.

“This is literally about the future of children and they have to do better than this.”

Meanwhile, legal proceedings involving the case and two other different, but related, legal challenges continue.

In November, Ottawa announced it intended to deal with a wider-scale compensation for Indigenous families harmed by the under-funding of the child welfare system by pursuing a settlement in a separate class-action case brought in 2019.

One of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, Xavier Moushoom, an Algonquin man from Quebec, was moved in and out of 14 foster homes from the time he was nine until he was 18, in the 1990s. He claims the federal government knew it was inadequately funding child welfare services on reserves and did nothing about it.

Another man, Jeremy Meawasige, was also added as a plaintiff and the lawsuit’s claim was raised from $3 billion to $6 billion. The 25-year-old from Nova Scotia was born with cerebral palsy, spinal curvature and autism and had to fight Ottawa to get adequate funding for essential services.

Two weeks ago, the government moved to contest the certification of this class action — despite a public announcement by Lametti and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller in November saying Ottawa would move forward with certification.

David Sterns, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, called this a “significant reversal on their part.”

“It flies in the face of their public statements and their public declarations that they were going to try to approach the class action with a view to resolving this on a global basis,” Sterns said.

But Miller says the government remains committed to compensating First Nations children and families harmed by the child welfare system. Consultations are ongoing with all parties regarding the tribunal compensation ruling, with all submissions to be filed by Feb. 21. Also, a new class action lawsuit was filed last week by the Assembly of First Nations in British Columbia.

Reaching a settlement that works for everyone in all these cases will be complex, but something the government still hopes to achieve, Miller said Wednesday.

“I’ve asked my deputy minister, Valerie Gideon, to engage with the parties and start working on some of the elements that would allow us to proceed without having to continue litigation, regardless of the nature,” Miller said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but I think there’s a lot of discussions that remain to be had.”

He wouldn’t go into detail about exactly what’s on the table for negotiation, because he said he committed to keep those conversations confidential.

Blackstock says more clarity is needed for the children and families at the heart of these disputes.

“The bare minimum that Canada owes them is to be clear in what it’s doing and not using this as a public relations or political campaign, but really being sensitive to the duty of truth that it owes to these victims.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2020.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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