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Dakota Kochie is the former chief of staff of the Assembly of First Nations.

Indigenous groups and the federal government announced earlier this week that they had reached a deal to reform First Nations child welfare and provide compensation to people who faced abuse and discrimination in the system. As an Indigenous person who knows many people who had horrible childhoods thanks to the child welfare system, I couldn’t be happier.

The legal wrangle goes back 14 years, when the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal alleging that the federal government discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding the child welfare system. Generation after generation, First Nations children were facing physical, sexual and mental abuse while in care.

It was time for change.

After multiple failed appeals and millions of taxpayer dollars squandered by the federal government, the AFN launched a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit to finally settle this matter and deliver much-needed compensation to some of Canada’s most vulnerable people. The AFN and the Caring Society knew that every day that went by without justice for First Nations children in care meant more pain and suffering.

In October, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller announced that the federal government would launch a “protective appeal” in response to the latest decision in the Federal Court of Appeal, but that the government would seek to arrive at a settlement with all parties by the end of December. Two weeks later, Patty Hajdu, the new Minister of Indigenous Services, announced that former senator Murray Sinclair would chair the negotiations – a move welcomed by Indigenous leaders.

In the final hours of 2021, the federal government and various First Nations leaders reached an agreement-in-principle totalling $40-billion. Half of the total amount will be allotted for compensation to survivors, while the other half will bolster efforts to reform the system. This compensation obviously won’t address all of the pain and suffering many First Nations children in care experienced, but it is a clear message from the federal government that they want to turn the page on an ugly chapter in Canada’s history. After all, the settlement is the largest ever in Canadian history.

Now the real work must begin.

After generations of underfunding Indigenous child and family services, the government has a major task in front of it to make permanent, long-term and sustainable Indigenous child welfare a reality.

My advice to the government? Continue to follow the ambitious path they have set under Bill C-92, an Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families. Continue returning child welfare jurisdiction back to First Nations and give them equitable resources to ensure that children never face abuse while in care. I’m hopeful that between the Liberal government’s existing investments and this new settlement, First Nations will begin to access new resources they’ve never had before.

If we as a country are serious about self-determination for Indigenous people, it is time that we give First Nations the right to control what happens to a child that needs to be put in care. Bill C-92 allows a First Nation to take care of their own children, without kids being ripped away from their family support networks. Child welfare doesn’t need to be a lifelong sentence of abuse. I know people such as Mr. Miller and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau get this. Hopefully the provinces get this too.

Let’s keep First Nations kids in loving, culturally relevant, safe homes.

I look forward to the day that Indigenous people in Canada are respected, have access to the same opportunities as other citizens, and live healthy, prosperous lives. I’m hopeful that this announcement will go a long way to realizing this.

One big takeaway from the announcement is the affirmation that we are amid one of the largest shifts in First Nations leadership. It is the history of yesterday that there were only men negotiating these historic agreements. Let’s lift up people such as AFN Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse and Caring Society executive director Cindy Blackstock for their tireless work and leadership. Without their persistence and strong relationships with senior ministers and the Prime Minister’s Office, there would have been no settlement.

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