Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sidestepping questions about whether he will adhere to a unanimous motion passed in the House of Commons calling on the federal government to drop its legal battles against a pair of rulings involving First Nations children.
The non-legally binding motion, passed by all five parties in the Commons Monday, was put forward by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
It demands that Trudeau’s minority government abandon the judicial reviews to be heard in Federal Court next week.
When asked a direct question Tuesday about whether he would drop the court cases, Trudeau avoided answering, pointing instead to previous statements he has made saying that the government agrees that First Nations children who suffered harms in the child welfare system deserve compensation.
“We absolutely recognized that from the beginning and we have worked with and will continue to work with communities to establish what is just and fair compensation for these individuals,” Trudeau said.
The NDP motion came in response to the recent news that ground-penetrating radar detected what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The motion also asks the government for faster implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, greater trauma resources for survivors and a sit-down with a group representing survivors from St. Anne’s, a former residential school in Fort Albany, Ont., over their search for justice.
It further called for a progress report to be tabled in 10 days detailing government’s work in addressing these demands.
Trudeau, Liberal cabinet members and some Liberal backbenchers abstained from the vote, which passed 271-0.
One of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings being appealed by Ottawa ordered the federal government to pay $40,000 each to some 50,000 First Nations children, as well as to each of their parents or grandparents. The tribunal’s September 2019 ruling found 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 second ruling, which came in November 2020, widened the applicability of Jordan’s Principle, a rule stating that when governments disagree about what level of government responsible for providing services to First Nations children, Ottawa must help a child in need first and argue over the bills later.
The tribunal’s ruling allows for First Nations children living off-reserve without Indian Act status to access Jordan’s Principle if they are recognized by their Nations as eligible.
Last week, Trudeau suggested that compensation should be proportional to the trauma suffered, rather than a blanket amount awarded to all Indigenous kids who suffered harm.
When the issue was raised again in the House of Commons Tuesday, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, like Trudeau, did not say why she abstained from the vote on the NDP motion.
But she did reference Ottawa’s ongoing contention that the legal issues at hand in these cases are complicated — more so than can be solved by a motion, she said.
“(The motion) included aspects on complex legal matters involving jurisdiction and privacy rights, which require extensive collaboration with Indigenous Peoples and cannot, nor should they be, resolved unilaterally on the floor of the Parliament of Canada, in a non-binding motion,” Bennett said during question period.
But Singh dismissed this argument, saying Indigenous children harmed by foster care and child welfare agency placements, many of whom are now adults, as well as residential school survivors and their families are feeling “betrayed and insulted” by the Liberal government’s handling of these cases.
“By refusing to even show up and vote on the motion, Justin Trudeau is confirming that he will continue to fight the residential school survivors and Indigenous kids in courts. This is wrong,” Singh said in a statement to The Canadian Press.
“Indigenous people are demanding real action to bring about genuine reconciliation, not just words and symbolic gestures … We will continue to push the Liberal government to uphold their rights.”
—Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press