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As prime minister from 2003 to 2006, Mr. Martin brokered a deal to address gaps in funding for Indigenous education and health care, but it was scrapped by his Conservative successor, Stephen Harper.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin says he doesn’t understand why the Trudeau government is challenging an order from a human rights tribunal to compensate First Nations children who were unnecessarily taken into the child-welfare system.

In September, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government willfully and recklessly discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserve by failing to provide funding for child and family services. In October, Ottawa filed an application for a judicial review of the ruling, calling for the compensation order to be quashed.

As prime minister from 2003 to 2006, Mr. Martin brokered a deal to address gaps in funding for Indigenous education and health care, but it was scrapped by his Conservative successor, Stephen Harper. Mr. Martin has continued to champion Indigenous rights.

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“I don’t know why the government has taken this position," Mr. Martin said in an interview on Friday with The Globe and Mail. “I was surprised."

When the government filed for the judicial review, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government “absolutely” agrees compensation is required, but the question is how it should roll out, and that more time was needed to respond than allowed under the tribunal’s timeline – to have a proposal by Dec. 10.

The government’s own court filings dispute the need for compensation. In the documents, Ottawa agrees compensation “can be made in appropriate circumstances" but this case isn’t among them. “Awarding compensation to individuals in this claim, however, was inconsistent with the nature of the complaint,” the documents say. The government said the compensation could cost $5-billion to $7.9-billion.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, brought the human rights case in 2007, with the Assembly of First Nations. The applicants said the discriminatory funding meant many children could not be cared for in their community.

In a Friday interview, Ms. Blackstock accused Mr. Trudeau and the government of “double speak” on compensation, calling it “inexcusable." She urged the Prime Minister to clarify Ottawa’s position.

Mr. Martin said a clear explanation for the legal challenge has been missing.

“If what they’re actually doing is challenging the rights of the Indigenous peoples, I don’t agree with that at all," he said. "If what they’re saying is we want to make sure this is done the right way, then I believe the way in which it is done is up to the Indigenous Peoples themselves.”

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Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a statement on Friday that the compensation order raised important questions and the challenge was needed to give the government “clarity on the ruling and time to have these conversations with our partners."

In spite of the challenge of the order, Mr. Martin defended Mr. Trudeau’s record, calling his government “very progressive” on Indigenous issues.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the government wants to do the right thing," he said.

The tribunal’s September order said 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, adding that its orders also cover parents or grandparents and children denied essential services.

Now in a minority government, Mr. Trudeau will need support from opposition parties, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Wednesday that one of his party’s two main priorities will be for the Liberals to drop the challenge.

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The request for a stay will be heard on Nov. 25.

With a report from Kristy Kirkup

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