Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Thursday that the government should challenge a human-rights tribunal ruling that called on Ottawa to compensate Indigenous children unnecessarily taken into child welfare after 2006.
Last month, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government wilfully and recklessly discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserve, by failing to provide funding for child and family services.
The Sept. 6 ruling started a 30-day clock for the government to decide whether it will accept the ruling, and pay the required compensation, or ask the Federal Court of Appeal for a judicial review to ensure that the tribunal’s decision followed the law.
The government could also ask for a stay of the tribunal’s ruling.
“This is a far-reaching decision that has major impacts on multiple levels of government and many different parts within government and for that reason I felt like it would be appropriate to have a judicial review of this decision," Mr. Scheer said Thursday in Upper Kingsclear, N.B.
The tribunal’s decision came before the Oct. 21 general election was triggered but the campaign doesn’t halt judicial timelines. With just days to go before the 30-day deadline expires, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wouldn’t say what his government will do.
“We will continue to work with Indigenous communities to make sure that we recognize and right past wrongs,” Mr. Trudeau said in Montreal Thursday. He noted that on issues like the Sixties Scoop, which involved the large-scale removal of Indigenous children to be placed with non-Indigenous families starting from the 1950s into the 80s, his government has “always moved forward in a responsible way to compensate” people.
Cameron Ahmad, Mr. Trudeau’s spokesperson on the Liberal campaign, later said that Ottawa is still “reviewing” the decision.
The lack of clarity so close to the deadline is disappointing to one of the groups that brought forward the original complaint against Canada in 2007. “It’s signalling” that they will ask the court to review the decision, said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
“This is about little kids," Ms. Blackstock said. Given the tribunal’s finding that “Canada’s conduct was willful and reckless” she wondered why the Liberals would “create uncertainty” around how they will respond.
The Green Party and NDP both say the government should accept the tribunal’s decision.
“This is a serious question, but it is also a simple one. Justin Trudeau should be able to answer clearly,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement.
The tribunal 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.
More than 54,000 First Nations children could be eligible for compensation, according to the Assembly of First Nations.
Earlier in his news conference on Thursday, Mr. Trudeau said reconciliation with Indigenous communities is “essential for the future of the country." But Ms. Blackstock noted that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s top recommendation was to fix the child-welfare system and ensure that there is equitable funding.
“This is the number-one call to action. So why is he choosing to litigate against children instead of reforming the government,” she said. “The survivors, across the board, wanted one major thing out of the TRC and that is not to have it happen to their grandchildren.”
Ms. Blackstock said Mr. Scheer’s position “raises concerns” about how the Conservatives would address the issue if they form government.
She noted that in former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s residential-school apology, he said that the burden of fixing the system and righting past wrongs is “properly” the government’s responsibility and not the responsibility of Indigenous people.
Mr. Scheer’s call for a judicial review, she said, “seems to fly right in the face” of Mr. Harper’s apology.
“It is again foisting the burden of Canada’s discrimination back onto the shoulders of children, who have already been severely harmed by the government,” she said.
With reports from Kristy Kirkup