The federal government says it is willing to settle lawsuits over the mass adoption of indigenous children into non-indigenous families, even as its lawyers file hundreds of pages of disclosure related to an Ontario class-action lawsuit scheduled to be heard in court next week.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Wednesday she is open to finding a solution to legal cases stemming from the so-called Sixties Scoop, a dark chapter in Canadian history during which child-welfare workers across the country removed thousands of indigenous children from their homes and placed them with non-indigenous families. "[The government] would like to get things out of court and to a table where we can make those kinds of agreements together, as a way forward," Ms. Bennett told reporters in Winnipeg. "We want to work together with all of the litigants that are presently in court and try and get to the table."
But Jeffery Wilson, the lead counsel for the Ontario plaintiffs, told The Globe and Mail that the defence has filed roughly 2,600 pages of documentation since the end of July. He said half of those were submitted Tuesday, just one week before a hearing into whether the Crown has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the cultural identity of First Nations people. Mr. Wilson said he was also advised Tuesday that the defence would be filing further disclosure.
"I read what the minister has said, but at the same time I'm faced with somewhat extraordinary eleventh-hour tactics on the part of the defence," he said, noting the case was launched seven years ago and has faced several delays, including as a result of the former Conservative government's unsuccessful attempt to overturn the certification of the class-action suit.
Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to rebuild the relationship between the federal government and indigenous people. In his mandate letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould after she took office, Mr. Trudeau gave her the task of reviewing Ottawa's litigation strategy and ensuring the positions are consistent with the government's commitments.
On Tuesday, five indigenous leaders co-signed an open letter to Mr. Trudeau urging him to resolve the Sixties Scoop lawsuits and reminding him of the trauma experienced by those affected. "We are writing to you because you have publicly stated that Canada has a sacred and legal obligation to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples," the letter says. "We honour your words and are looking for their transformation into meaningful action."
The wide-scale apprehension of indigenous children extended beyond the 1960s, but that is the decade that saw the most adoptions. Children were not only separated from their parents and siblings, but they were stripped of their culture and, in some cases, subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Several lawsuits have been launched across the country, including in Manitoba, which last year became the first province to apologize for the Sixties Scoop.
In an interview with The Globe, the lead plaintiff in the Ontario class action said the federal government has had "well over 50 years" to acknowledge the ills that were perpetrated and do whatever it takes to ensure that children in Canada – indigenous or otherwise – are protected. "I lost the knowledge of who I was as an indigenous person of this land," said Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel, who was taken from her home community north of North Bay in 1967 when she was four years old and, after years in foster care, was adopted by a non-indigenous family. "I lost who I was."
Mr. Wilson said the Ontario case is precedent-setting because it asserts that the federal government has a duty, stemming from an agreement reached between the Crown and the province in 1966, to ensure that First Nation bands are fully involved in any decisions concerning the adoption or long-term foster-care placement of indigenous children. "It's the first case in the Western world to test whether the value of aboriginal identity is worth at least as much as the value of aboriginal land," he said.
In an e-mail Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Bennett's office reiterated the Liberals' preference for settlement rather than litigation. "We remain open to resuming negotiations to explore options for redress outside of court," the office said.
Children's rights advocates have planned a rally in Toronto on the morning of the Aug. 23 hearing.