Canada Pledges $31.5 Billion For First Nations Children Forced Into Foster Care. Here’s What We Know.

Demonstrators hold up signs on the country's first Orange Shirt Day.
Demonstrators hold up signs on the country's first Orange Shirt Day.Getty

Over the years, the Government of Canada has enacted different policies to separate Indigenous children from their families and communities with the objective of erasing Indigenous culture over time.

The Canadian federal government came to a much-anticipated $40 billion CAD ($31.5 billion USD) agreement with Indigenous leaders to compensate First Nations families harmed by the country’s long history of forcibly removing First Nations children from their homes and placing them into foster care, where many reported abuse, physical harm and trauma.

Half of the money will go directly to the children and families harmed by the child welfare system on First Nation reserves and in the Yukon, while the rest of the funds will go toward long-term reforms over the next five years, including initiatives to support those aging out of foster care, according to Indigenous Services Canada.

More than 200,000 children and youth could be eligible to receive financial compensation, according to Manitoba’s Assembly of First Nations.

“No amount of money can reconnect First Nations children and youth with their cultures nor reverse the suffering experienced by First Nations children, youth, their families and communities,” the Government of Canada said in a statement. “We recognize the harms experienced by the children, youth and families who continue to suffer because of Canada's discrimination.”

In the coming months, the federal government and Indigenous leaders will talk through the agreement’s details before a final agreement is submitted to a federal court and human rights tribunal for approval.

The deal comes after more than a decade of complaints and debates between the federal government and those representing the interests of different First Nations groups and agencies.

Here’s what we know about the deal:

Who Will Be Eligible?

Any First Nations child who was living on reservation and in the Yukon, who was removed from their homes between April 1, 1991 and March 31, 2022, alongside their parents and caregivers, will be eligible to receive compensation. Authorities are dedicating $20 billion to this part of the agreement.

Compensation is also available to children who were did not receive or were delayed in receiving essential care between April 1, 1991 and Dec 11, 2007, as well as children who did not receive care due to the Canadian government’s “narrow definition” of Jordan’s Principle, the statement read.

The second part of the agreement, where $20 billion in funds will be dedicated, will be spent over five years in order to reform the First Nations Child and Family Services program, support First Nations young adults aging out of the child welfare system and develop preventative services to help families stay together.

The money will also go toward reforming Jordan’s Principle and other programs that have been plagued with discrimination and non-compliance.

What Is Jordan’s Principle?

Jordan’s Principle is a government program aimed to ensure First Nations children have the same access to healthcare, education and social needs if they require.

The initiative was named after Jordan River Anderson, a young Cree boy in Manitoba. Anderson was born in 1999 with a rare genetic disorder and was not able to leave the hospital due to his health.

At two years old, doctors said he was well enough to move back home as long as he had an in-home caretaker to support his medical needs.

But disputes over which level of government should pay for the care ensued and Jordan was never able to leave the hospital. He died three years later, at five years old, still in the hospital.

The initiative in his namesake, passed in the House of Commons in 2007, was meant to ensure no First Nations child undergoes bureaucratic problems to receive healthcare and social needs like Jordan did.

But the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found in 2016 that the Government of Canada applied a limited scope in its use of the Jordan Principle, and it is believed that many children the Jordan’s Principle was meant to support did not receive the help they needed, or were delayed in getting help.

The landmark $40 billion agreement will allocate funds to support repairing the implementation of Jordan’s Principle.

How Will Money Be Doled Out?

While final details of the deal must still be settled, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in 2016 that $40,000 should be paid to each First Nations child unnecessarily placed into foster care.

Advocates today say that six-figure amount should be the minimum compensation, and more funding should be available to different circumstances.

How Did the Deal Come to Be?

The historic deal came from nearly 15 years of complaints, debates and discussions, beginning in 2007 when the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act alleging the federal government of discrimination against First Nations children through an underfunded child welfare system available on reservation, according to CBC News.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found in 2016 that the government’s discrimination against First Nations children has caused "trauma and harm to the highest degree, causing pain and suffering,” CBC News reported.

The deal was struck in light of the thousands of bodies discovered in mass graves near former residential school sites in Canada last summer. Many experts believe there are many more bodies in unmarked grave sites yet to be uncovered. 

What Policies Led Indigenous Children to Be Disproportionately Targeted?

From the late 1950s to through the 1980s, several provinces enacted different policies that made it so Indigenous children were taken from their communities and adopted into white families. This era later became known as the Sixties Scoop.

Social workers said that reservations could not provide adequate care for Indigenous children, and to be raised among Euro-centric values would better support those children's development.

In reality, the policies tore young children away from their families and cultures, and many argued that the government should have instead better funded social services and education available on reservations.

"When you're taken away from your family, it creates tremendous trauma. You're taken away from the only thing you've known in your life, and you get put into a home full of strangers," Sixties Scoop survivor Mary Burton, who now runs a Winnipeg-based group that supports families involved in the social services system, told CBC News. "If you can create as little disruption for the family as possible, you will not have those same issues that you would have had if you had taken the children away from their family."

Prior to that, many Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential schools, a form of boarding school run by the government in connection with the Catholic Church. There, beatings and sexual abuse was rampant. The Canadian government later revealed the objective of the residential schools was to erase Indigenous heritage over time.

The Government of Canada has acknowledged that survivors of both the events, alongside their communities, led to the present day deal.

How Many Indigenous Children Are Affected by the Foster Care System Today?

While residential schools and policies that forced the adoption of Indigenous children into white families no longer continue today, Indigenous children are still disproportionately represented in the foster care system.

More than 52% of children in Canada’s foster care system are Indigenous, yet Indigenous children only make up of 7% of all children in Canada, the Washington Post reported, citing a 2016 census.

In Manitoba alone, there are approximately 10,000 kids in the care system – 91% of whom are Indigenous, according to a report published by provincial government officials, CBC News reported.

Funding from the deal will also be allocated to support efforts to strengthen family relations, as well as support preventative measures, instead of previous intervention policies.

Related Stories