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Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, speaks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on July 7, 2020. Bellegarde said he welcomed the government’s agreement to certify the class action on funding levels for First Nations child welfare services.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government has agreed to the certification and mediation of a class action lawsuit on funding levels for First Nations child welfare services – a legal milestone seen by Ottawa as a major step toward the negotiation of a settlement.

In February, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) filed a $10-billion federal class action suit to seek damages for thousands of First Nations children and families.

In it, the national advocacy organization said that Canada’s funding was discriminatory because the federal system created an incentive to remove First Nations children from their families and communities and place them in out-of-home care.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Thursday in an interview with The Globe and Mail that it is significant the federal government agreed to certification.

It means the government has accepted the fact that there was discrimination toward children and that abuses and harms were inflicted on them, he said.

“They [the government] want to speed this along,” he said.

“It is very important that they’ve agreed to the certification of this class action suit and they’ve also agreed to mediation, so it is not going to waste a lot of time, energy and money challenging it legally.”

People who have suffered the abuses and discrimination are more likely to receive compensation, he added.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Justice Minister David Lametti said Thursday the parties to the lawsuit are in agreement on the certification of the claims put forward.

“We are making progress in negotiations,” they said in a statement.

“In order to obtain a prompt resolution, parties have agreed to commence mediation as soon as possible upon appointment of a mutually acceptable mediator.”

Mr. Miller and Mr. Lametti’s statement Thursday also noted another class action effort, which is now combined with the AFN’s.

The $6-billion Moushoom class counsel was filed in Federal Court on behalf of tens of thousands of First Nations children and their families who say they suffered damages as a result of Ottawa’s systemic discrimination in the funding of child welfare services since 1991.

Consenting to certification marks a step forward in negotiating a settlement to compensate those harmed by underfunding of child and family services in communities, the ministers said.

“Discussions will continue in the spirit of collaboration in order to achieve a fair, equitable and comprehensive resolution to compensation – a resolution that will prioritize the safety and well-being of First Nations children,” they said.

It will now be critical for Canada to act in good faith in the coming negotiations and to provide fair compensation for all who suffered harm, Mr. Bellegarde said.

The negotiations will also seek a resolution to outstanding matters now before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal involving similar facts and issues, the AFN said in its news release.

When its class action was filed in February, the AFN said it built on the work and evidence at the CHRT.

The class action is seeking compensation for all those harmed by the system, including those not covered in the CHRT’s decision, AFN Regional Chief Kevin Hart said at the time.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, a non-profit organization, said Thursday that Canada remains bound by the continuing litigation before the CHRT to end its discriminatory conduct toward First Nations children and to compensate victims.

The society, along with the AFN, first brought forward a complaint in 2007 that 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 Ottawa had indeed discriminated, and 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.”

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