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Murray Sinclair prepares to appear before the Senate Committe on Aboriginal Peoples in Ottawa on May 28, 2019. The confidential talks now underway are focused on the idea of compensation for Indigenous children who were unnecessarily taken into the child welfare system.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will facilitate high-stakes compensation talks on Indigenous child welfare in hopes of reaching a settlement with the federal government by the end of the year.

Murray Sinclair, who left the Senate last January, will now help to guide talks under way in Ottawa.

On Wednesday evening, parties to the discussions confirmed in a statement that he will chair the process.

“Senator Sinclair continues to tirelessly advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the importance of keeping the Government of Canada accountable in the steps needed on the path of reconciliation,” the statement said. It added that he will play an important role in the dialogue.

Mr. Sinclair is slated to meet the parties, including the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the First Nation’s Child and Family Caring Society, and is also taking part in group discussions. His presence, which was agreed to by all involved, is expected to help instill trust in the confidential process.

Mr. Sinclair’s task in the next few weeks will be to try to help the parties reach a deal on compensation for Indigenous children who were unnecessarily taken into the child welfare system. The goal is to come to an out-of-court settlement, expected to be worth billions, before the conclusion of 2021.

Ottawa faces decision on ruling to compensate Indigenous children

The 70-year-old is best known for his work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent six years documenting the legacy of residential schools in Canada. He was also the first Indigenous judge in Manitoba and the co-commissioner of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. The inquiry was established in 1988 in response to the 1987 trial of two men for the murder of Helen Betty Osborne and the 1988 shooting death of J.J. Harper after an encounter with a Winnipeg police officer.

Ottawa is keen to reach a settlement on the issue, which has been a source of controversy for the Liberals for years. Opposition parties and advocates have repeatedly criticized the government for the position it has taken in court on the matter. They have also said the federal government’s approach is harmful to Indigenous children.

On Oct. 29, Ottawa filed what is known as a “protective appeal” of a ruling from Federal Court Justice Paul Favel, stating it believed that it believed that the court erred in its decision, which upheld two orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT).

The CHRT order required Ottawa to provide up to $40,000 in compensation to each First Nations child unnecessarily taken into foster care as a result of underfunded government services since 2006. The order would also require payments to parents or grandparents.

Justice Favel’s ruling, which was handed down on the eve of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, said the federal government had not succeeded in establishing that the compensation decision by the human-rights tribunal was unreasonable.

When the notice of appeal was filed on Justice Favel’s decision, Ottawa also announced legal proceedings will be on hold for now and they want to reach a deal with parties in the case, as well as parties in separate class-action lawsuits focused on Indigenous child welfare.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said at the time that Ottawa would be putting forward a significant amount of money to try and reach a settlement, though he could not specify how much. He did say that it would cost billions to fix the problem.

While speaking outside of a Liberal caucus meeting on Monday, Justice Minister David Lametti said the offer that was put on the table was enough “to bring everybody to the table” and for that reason he is optimistic about the outcome that can be achieved.

Ottawa has maintained its issue in the CHRT case is about jurisdiction. During legal proceedings, Robert Frater, a lawyer for the Attorney-General of Canada, said Ottawa recognized the need to compensate those who were affected but argued that the CHRT’s findings were reached through a flawed chain of reasoning.

Its position has prompted questions from advocates and opposition parties about Justin Trudeau’s personal commitment to reconciliation. Since assuming office in 2015, the Prime Minister has said that his relationship with Indigenous peoples is of paramount importance, along with his government.

Mr. Trudeau has also faced greater pressure to make progress on reconciliation since earlier this year, when some First Nations announced that they had found unmarked burial sites on the grounds of former residential schools.

AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald has previously said her organization was disappointed that Ottawa continues to pursue an appeal but that the AFN is encouraged that a deadline has been set for negotiations.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, told The Globe and Mail earlier this month that she has been part of talking circles before and “they haven’t really got us very far.”

“I think this is worth one last kick at the can for kids,” Dr. Blackstock said. “And then that’s it for me. I’m done. Because the only real progress that we’ve seen so far has been really through litigation.”

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