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‘Monumental’ AFN child welfare deal close as chiefs press concerns

National chief says agreement will top the $20B promised as part of a landmark settlement

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says the organization is about to finalize a deal with Ottawa on child welfare reforms that will top the $20 billion promised as part of a landmark settlement.

But it likely won’t include reforms to a legal rule, Jordan’s Principle, intended to ensure First Nations kids get the care they need when they need it with payments to be worked out afterward.

Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak is calling it a “monumental agreement” and said she will continue to work with chiefs before they ratify it later this year.

“Time is not our friend — there’s a (federal) election in a year or less,” Woodhouse Nepinak said in an interview Tuesday.

“I think the chiefs will be very happy with what I’ve been negotiating alongside the Assembly of First Nations, alongside other parties. We’re trying our best.”

Woodhouse Nepinak’s comments come after three regional chiefs representing more than half of First Nations recently penned a letter to her saying the assembly is overstepping by making decisions about reforms without consulting children and families.

The chiefs, representing First Nations in Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Quebec-Labrador, said the organization is not being transparent in its negotiations for a final settlement agreement.

Woodhouse Nepinak refuted that assertion, and said the executive team, of which those three chiefs are members, has been briefed throughout the process. She said the other chiefs will have 120 days to review the agreement before it’s brought to a special chiefs assembly in the fall to vote on.

Chiefs Bobby Cameron, Terry Teegee and Ghislain Picard said the assembly has refused to call meetings on the negotiations since February, and it has imposed terms of reference that interfere with an independent expert advisory committee responsible for developing and implementing a work plan to reform Indigenous Services Canada.

As a result, they said, Canada is now only prepared to fund the advisory committee for activities the assembly authorizes.

The assembly said the draft agreement will be publicly available to chiefs in full.

The three regional chiefs also raised concerns that the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which jointly launched the human-rights complaint that led to the settlement agreement, is being frozen out.

Woodhouse Nepinak said the AFN “is not responsible for other parties if they leave tables or not.”

Cindy Blackstock, who heads the Caring Society, pulled out of the agreement in principle, citing concerns with Jordan’s Principle as she brought forward another non-compliance motion to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal against Ottawa earlier this year.

But the agreement being worked on with Ottawa is unlikely to include funding to ensure Jordan’s Principle is followed, Woodhouse Nepinak said.

The legal principle says First Nations children must receive the health care and social services they need even if there is a jurisdictional dispute over which government should pay for it.

“That’s a separate issue,” Woodhouse Nepinak said. “So we can start talking about that in the fall.”

The complaint that led to the settlement revolved around allegations that Ottawa’s underfunding of on-reserve child welfare services amounted to discrimination, and that First Nations children were denied equal access to support including school supplies and medical equipment.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found in 2016 that First Nations are adversely affected by the services provided by the government and, in some cases, denied services as a result of the government’s involvement.

One representative plaintiff in the class action for Jordan’s Principle families, Carolyn Buffalo, is a mother from Montana First Nation in Maskwacis, Alta.

Shortly after the Federal Court approved the settlement last year, she spoke about frustrations in trying to get her son care for his cerebral palsy on-reserve, despite Jordan’s Principle being adopted by the federal government in 2007.

“Reforming the system of child and family services and putting it back into the hands of First Nations, that’s what we’re talking about right now,” said Woodhouse Nepinak, adding Jordan’s Principle work will continue through other processes.

“I’m just here trying to pull out money from the federal government,” she said. “I wish the Caring Society would come back to the table.”

Blackstock said in an interview Tuesday she had already expected the reforms to cost more than $20 billion, given increases to the population and inflation.

But she questioned how much room there will be for chiefs to voice their concerns once they are presented with the draft agreement. And as some First Nations, including in Alberta, don’t participate in the assembly, she questioned how their voices and concerns will be heard, too.

“If you’re handing me a document and it’s going to affect my children for the next X number of years, now and for many generations to come, I get to have a say in that,” Blackstock said.

“And, more importantly, my community does as well. There needs to be adequate time for people to look at it at the nation level, and then maybe even do community consultations around it.”

Her critique stretched to Indigenous Services Canada, too, saying Canada has a duty to consult with First Nations, and it “seems to be just passing the buck to the AFN … It’s Canada’s responsibility to do honour of the Crown and not discharge its consultation mandate with First Nations.”

Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blackstock said the Caring Society left the agreement in principle because the process “was not achieving the goal of ending discrimination,” but added it has always been open to participation in the final settlement agreement.

READ ALSO: B.C. chiefs frustrated with AFN’s child welfare efforts