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Children play in the water filled ditches in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont., on April 19, 2016.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The latest: Federal government will appeal order to compensate Indigenous children

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is working down to the wire to decide Friday if it will continue fighting an order directing it to compensate First Nations children removed from their homes.

Speaking while on a trip to the Netherlands ahead of back-to-back international summits, he says ministers are working this morning in Ottawa to meet a deadline to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court ruling that upheld two historic decisions from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

Given his pledge to reconciliation and more Canadians becoming attuned to the legacy of residential schools, what Trudeau does next is being carefully watched by Indigenous leaders, advocates and parliamentarians.

In 2016, the human rightstribunal found Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children by knowingly underfunding child and family services for those living on reserve.

Litigants in the case, first brought forward in 2007, say this led to thousands of kids beingapprehendedfrom their families and enduring abuse and suffering in provincial foster care systems.

The tribunal said each First Nations child, along with their parents or grandparents, who were separated because of this chronic underfunding were eligible to receive $40,000 each in federal compensation, which was the maximum amount it could award.

It has been estimated some 54,000 children and their families could qualify, meaning Ottawa could be on the hook to pay more than $2 billion.

The tribunal also ruled that the criteria needed to be expanded so more First Nations children could be eligible for Jordan’s Principle, a rule designed to ensure jurisdictional disputes over who pays for what doesn’t prevent kids from accessing government services.

In 2019, the federal government asked the Federal Court to dismiss the tribunal’s decisions. Part of its arguments, according to a court summary, was awarding individual compensation meant there needed to be proof of individual harm.

The Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, which launched the original complaint, along with other litigants say victims of systemic discrimination can be compensated as individuals without having to show individual examples of evidence.

On Sept. 29, the court upheld both tribunal decisions, opening up a 30-day legal window for the Liberals to file an appeal.

Since then, pressure has been mounting from opposition parties and Indigenous leaders on Trudeau to accept the ruling, rather than take it to the Federal Court of Appeal.

Trudeau said an announcement will be made later Friday and underscored his government is committed to compensating First Nations people who were harmed by child welfare systems.

“We are committed to working with partners to end this harmful system and to make sure that kids at-risk get to stay in their communities, in their culture, and be cared for by their communities,” he said.

Figuring out what to do next has been one of the first major decisions his re-elected Liberal government and newly named cabinet ministers have had to grapple with.

Trudeau, along with his freshly appointed Indigenous services minister, Patty Hajdu, said earlier this week the case was being reviewed thoroughly and underscored that First Nations children would be compensated.

Despite that, neither directly ruled out seeking another court review, with Justice Minister David Lametti later saying there are different factors at play and that the file is a complicated one.

Child-welfare advocates and case litigants say if the Trudeau government is serious about its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous People it won’t go back to court.

Repairing Canada’s relationship with Indigenous communities has long been a priority of Trudeau’s, but the discovery of what are believed to be hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites by First Nations in Saskatchewan and British Columbia have heightened Canadians’ attention to his promise.

Trudeau has been under even more pressure to prove his commitment to reconciliation after choosing to spend the first national Truth and Reconciliation Day last month on vacation in Tofino, B.C., rather than attend a ceremony commemorating unmarked graves found at the former Kamloops residential school site. He has since visited the site and apologized profusely to the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc, which had issued an invitation for him to attend the Sept. 30 ceremony.

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