The 2021 election was tumultuous for all parties involved. Little time to prepare talking points, rushed platforms and frantic canvassing defined it. Although no leader ran a perfect campaign, nobody dropped the ball more than Justin Trudeau after he lied on national television about his history of taking Indigenous children to court.
During the leaders’ debate on Sept. 9, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh jumped on the opportunity to publicly denounce Trudeau’s legal battles. “You can’t take a knee one day if you’re going to take Indigenous kids to court the next,” he said.
Trudeau’s rebuttal was less than satisfactory. Instead of apologizing for wasting a significant portion of resources on legal fees that could have been invested in Indigenous communities, he opted to completely deny the allegation. “It’s actually not true,” Trudeau said.
It is surprising the prime minister would be so bold considering how clear the public record is. Since 2016, the federal government has been fighting the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s (CHRT) final decision in a class action lawsuit representing Indigenous children.
Although the Trudeau administration has been fighting the case’s decision since 2016, it was first filed by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in 2007.
In 2007, the AFN and Caring Society submitted a summary of complaints that asserted the federal government was violating the Human Rights Act, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This complaint was based on the discriminatory levels of child welfare the federal government provided Indigenous children on reserves in contrast to the levels of welfare made available by provincial governments to off-reserve residents.
The AFN and Caring Society noted abhorrent funding for child welfare on reserves had resulted in the drastic overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care. The complaint clarified that for the government to remain in adherence to various human rights legislations and international covenants, Canada must invest an additional $109 million in the first year of the welfare funding formula to correct existing shortfalls.
The legal battle lasted for seven years and climaxed in 2016 after the CHRT concluded on-reserve funding for child welfare was 38 per cent lower than provincial funding for off-reserve citizens. In a landmark decision, the CHRT ruled the Canadian government had been racially discriminating against 163,000 First Nations children. As settlement, the CHRT ruled the federal government must pay human rights compensation of up to $40,000 for families that suffered from the systemic injustice. Further, the settlement required the government to provide the on-reserve welfare compensation to recognized Indigenous populations that are members of their respective nations but situated off reserve.
The Canadian government took exception to these stipulations and filed for a judicial review of the CHRT’s compensation framework in both 2019 and 2020. In a news release regarding the government’s decision, Trudeau’s administration excused their request for a judicial review by claiming the decision was made without the presence of adequate First Nations representation. “The Tribunal’s decision was made without broad participation of First Nations communities and is a clear overreach of the Tribunal’s jurisdiction,” the release said. However, a large conglomerate of First Nations organization had been involved in the dispute for years — including the AFN, Caring Society, the Chiefs of Ontario and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
Beyond this, a justice department lawyer representing the federal government asserted the compensation packages the CHRT agreed on was purportedly “wrong in law,” further outlining the government’s disregard to reconciliation for contemporary racial abuses of Indigenous peoples.
This case has been drawn out for 12 years when it could have been settled in 2016 by balancing the funding and providing compensation for welfare. Instead, the government has exercised its judicial power to starve out the class action suit representing hundreds of thousands of First Nations children. In the process, the government has spent over $12 million in the span of five years challenging the case.
The Trudeau government has exhausted excuses for its systemic discrimination against First Nations children. Cornered and frightened in the leaders’ debate, Trudeau did what any unethical politician representing status quo power would do: he lied.
The record is clear: Trudeau did take Indigenous children to court and he failed his public commitment to reconciliation. This squabble during the leaders’ debate was far more than political ammunition aimed at Trudeau’s head — it served as a suitable metaphor for another failed parliament that took advantage of the basic principles of Indigenous reconciliation for political gain publicly and proceeded to treat them with contempt in the legal arena. Trudeau is no better than the colonists that preceded him.