Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday November 2, 2021
Justin Trudeau just rolled the dice on reconciliation
Justin Trudeau has made a dangerous bet he can right a long-standing wrong against Indigenous children without instead setting back the cause of reconciliation for years. Canadians can only hope he wins this wager.
On Friday, his government bitterly disappointed people across the country when it launched a last-minute court appeal against a ruling requiring it to pay billions of dollars to Indigenous youngsters who were discriminated against in the child welfare system.
The PM and his Liberals don’t deny responsibility for this wrongdoing. Nor do they reject their obligation to come through with significant compensation. Even so, they ignored the pleadings of Indigenous groups as well as the opposition Conservatives and New Democrats by appealing orders from both the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and the Federal Court to pay up.
If that had been the extent of this government’s action last week, it would deserve the universal condemnation of Canadians today. But the government’s response was more complex and nuanced. And herein lies the nub of the prime minister’s risky gamble.
On Monday, his government began negotiating with the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to settle the dispute out of court — by the start of December, no less. Until then, it has put on hold its appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. That means if the talks result in a mutually agreeable deal, there will be no appeal and everyone can go home happy.
In addition to this, the government will not appeal a second Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order that would result in Indigenous children receiving access to government services without delays caused by jurisdictional disputes.
There is cause for guarded optimism but, even more, deep concern in what the government has done. In rejecting the most direct route to a just settlement, it has opted for a winding, rock-strewn path that may take it over a cliff. It’s hard not to agree with Indigenous leaders who point out that this battle for compensation began 14 years ago and the Trudeau Liberals have had ample time to work out a fair settlement.
But they didn’t. And in 2019, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal declared the government had “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against First Nations children living on reserves by underfunding child and family services. As a result, children were taken from their communities and put into government-run programs.
Because of the undisputed harm this caused, the tribunal ordered Ottawa to pay $40,000 each to as many as 54,000 Indigenous children who were removed from their homes after 2006, as well as their relatives. The Federal Court upheld this decision on Sept. 29.
The government insists the Federal Court erred when it concluded the tribunal had acted reasonably in ordering compensation for First Nations parents and grandparents as well as children. In so doing, the government might argue it’s trying to defend the best interests of taxpayers as well as those of the Indigenous people being compensated.
But Trudeau is walking a fine line. He has long proclaimed there is no more important relationship for his government than the one it has with Indigenous peoples. If he is seen as merely trying to save money in this case, he’ll further alienate Indigenous people while doing a disservice to all Canadians. And if his government can’t secure a deal this month, it will only make things worse by dragging things out with a Supreme Court appeal.
What comes next can’t be brinkmanship designed to force a settlement. Canadians have to see good-faith, productive negotiations. For this country’s sake, the government’s goal can’t be the cheapest deal but rather the one that’s fairest for every Indigenous victim. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)