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AFN, Ottawa finalize 10-year, $47.8-billion deal on child welfare reform

MONTREAL — The Assembly of First Nations and the federal government finalized a deal with Ottawa late Wednesday night that will see the federal government spend $47.8 billion to reform child welfare programs over the next 10 years.

AFN National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak made the announcement on the final day of the AFN’s annual general assembly in Montreal, just two days after she told chiefs there was an offer on the table but that she could not yet discuss it publicly.

While her announcement was met with cheers, there remained concerns Thursday among some who accused her and the AFN of working in secrecy to finalize a deal that will affect their children for generations to come.

The agreement seeks to redress decades of discrimination against First Nations children, who were from their families and placed in foster care because the child welfare systems on reserves were not funded to provide services that could keep families together.

“There has been so much pain and hurt and harm caused by this racist child-welfare policy in every one of our First Nations communities and our families,” Woodhouse Nepinak said at a press conference following her announcement.

The federal government is responsible for child welfare on reserves, and provincial governments for child welfare programs everywhere else. But Ottawa’s funding was only on par with the provinces when it came to foster care because they had to pay provincial agencies to provide that service at provincial rates.

The AFN is set to ratify the agreement at a special assembly in September.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu shed a few tears as Woodhouse Nepinak discussed the monumental agreement they had reached.

“It’s an attempt to bring some peace to families and to communities and to First Nations peoples who have experienced the tool of colonialism through what I would say is the most cruel policy, which is to separate families,” she said.

Ontario Regional Chief Abram Benedict said the agreement marks a fundamental change in the relationship between First Nations and Ottawa.

“I can tell you that as part of the negotiating team, we are comfortable with the agreement that we have seen. Otherwise, we would have not put it forward,” he said, thanking Hajdu for her support. “This is revolutionary.”

He added that First Nations people will now begin the process of discussing the deal on its merits. “It is now in the hands of our communities.”

The deal is worth more than double what was originally promised for long-term reform in a settlement agreement that resulted from a hard-fought human-rights complaint over underfunding of child-welfare services. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled Canada had discriminated against First Nations children due to the chronic underfunding of child welfare programs.

The initial amount was slated at $20 billion. A separate $23 billion was set aside to compensate children and families harmed by the system.

Families who helped launched the initial court case stood with the minister and national chief as they shared the news.

The process to reach the landmark deal was marred by concerns from chiefs across the country, with child welfare dominating sideline conservations, last-minute resolutions and closed-door meetings despite it being mostly left off the original agenda.

Four regional chiefs who sit alongside Woodhouse Nepinak on the assembly’s executive committee penned letters to her in June decrying its efforts to reach a deal, saying it was overstepping its mandate by making decisions that will directly affect First Nations children and families without consent.

Chiefs Bobby Cameron, Terry Teegee, Ghislain Picard and Joanna Bernard represent more than half of First Nations in Canada.

They also accused the AFN for attempting to sideline the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society from the process, despite them jointly launching a human-rights complaint about Ottawa’s underfunding of on-reserve child welfare services.

Woodhouse Nepinak denied that, and said chiefs would be able to see the agreement before it’s voted on during a special chiefs assembly in the fall.

Woodhouse Nepinak promised Thursday to listen to the feedback she is getting.

“You have directed us to go and get a deal out of Canada. You’ve pushed us over and over again to continue to negotiate in a good way,” she told chiefs.

“I get direction from you. Not from agencies, not from AFN, not from staff, not from anybody else, but from chiefs.”

She did reveal the dollar figure in a closed-door meeting with chiefs and their proxies on Tuesday.

During that meeting, she talked about to the political risks of not accepting the deal that is on the table, according to a source who was in the room but was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to share the details publicly.

That risk referred to the fact a federal election is on the horizon and a new government led by the Conservatives is a distinct possibility.

On Thursday, when asked what will happen should there be a change in government next year, Woodhouse Nepinak said there is a fiscal commitment that the next government, “in theory,” will not be able to cut.

Asked whether the announcement was made political as it came on the same day Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre attended the assembly for the first time in-person, Hajdu said they “didn’t choose this specific date.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2024.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press