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The tribunal order amounts to a major victory for fairness and justice, said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, seen here in July, 2019.

Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

More than 54,000 First Nations children could be eligible for compensation after a human-rights tribunal ordered the government to act, says the Assembly of First Nations.

On Friday, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal said the federal government willfully and recklessly discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserve by failing to provide funding for child and family services.

“The panel finds it has sufficient evidence to find that Canada’s conduct was willful and reckless resulting in what we have referred to as a worst-case scenario under our [Canadian Human Rights] Act,” it said.

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“What is more, many federal government representatives at different levels were aware of the adverse impacts."

Canada must provide compensation of up to $40,000 to First Nations children who were unnecessarily taken into care on or after Jan. 1, 2006, the tribunal said, adding its orders also cover parents or grandparents and children denied essential services.

The tribunal order amounts to a major victory for fairness and justice, said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, adding it is about the safety of children and their right to be with their families.

“No government should be fighting these fundamental values,” he said in a statement Friday. “We have to work together to give life to this ruling.”

In response to the tribunal, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan said the federal government will need time to review the order to ensure it receives the full attention it deserves.

Ottawa is dealing with a broken system that needs to be fixed, he added, saying the government has prioritized system-wide reform designed to put the needs of Indigenous children first while citing a list of investments.

“We understand that systemic issues require systemic responses,” press secretary Kevin Deagle said. “Today’s order touches on important and complex issues that we take very seriously."

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Mr. Deagle did not say whether the federal government was considering an appeal.

The tribunal has affirmed that Canada knew about continuing discrimination and harms to children and failed to act, said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

The society brought forward the original complaint against Canada, along with the AFN, in 2007 and argued the federal government failed to provide First Nations children the same child welfare services available elsewhere, contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act.

In January, 2016, the tribunal found Canada had indeed been discriminatory, noting it acknowledged “the suffering of those First Nations children and families who are or have been denied an equitable opportunity to remain together or to be reunited in a timely manner.”

There have been multiple orders issued by the tribunal since then, Ms. Blackstock said, adding it highlights “ingrained” government discrimination.

“That department [Indigenous Services] needs to be reformed,” she said.

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