Over the past 15 years, the Government of Canada has started trying to make up for centuries of destructive policies and behaviour toward Indigenous peoples.

The government’s historical tactics amounted to “cultural genocide,” according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A residential school agreement signed in 2006 has cost Ottawa $3.23 billion in compensation and other expenses as of last year. There’s a separate pot of money for former day school students. Formal apologies have been made.

In December, a federal court approved an $8-billion settlement for longstanding inadequate drinking water on reserves. That entails $6 billion toward providing reliable access to safe drinking water on reserves and $1.5 billion in compensation to approximately 142,000 people. Another $400 million will be allocated for a First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund.

On Tuesday, Jan. 4, the Government of Canada announced a record-high $40-billion package for discriminatory child welfare practices. Half of that is for compensation while the other half is to overhaul the First Nations Child and Family Services program over five years.

Before arriving at this settlement, Ottawa spent years trying to appeal its way out of this mess, unfortunately. So obstruction hasn’t been removed from the federal government’s bag of tricks. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found in 2016 that welfare services discriminated against First Nations children. That should cost Ottawa $40,000 per affected individual, the tribunal determined, after acting on a complaint lodged by the Assembly of First Nations years earlier. A court agreed with that penalty, but the feds squirmed, until recently. Now, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu says $40,000 is the minimum that eligible children and families may receive.

It’s estimated that 215,000 people will be entitled to that compensation, which is necessary because social services workers, in some instances, wrongfully ripped children away from their homes and put them in places where they lost connection with their families, their language and their culture. Some of these children also suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the residential school system was designed to do the same thing.

“Residential schools were established with one purpose in mind, not to educate, not to protect, not to preserve, but to intentionally and systematically assimilate Indigenous children and adolescents into European culture, ‘to take the Indian out of child’ and to remove and isolate children from their influence of their home, families, traditions, languages and culture, all based on racist assumptions that First Nations cultures were inferior,” says Linda Debassige, chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation in Ontario.

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children attended these schools, with the last one closing in Rankin Inlet in 1997.

There was also the ‘60 Scoop, when First Nations and Inuit children were taken from their family homes and sent to live with non-Indigenous caregivers between 1951 and 1991. This injustice cost the Government of Canada $750 million in compensation in 2017.

Hajdu on Tuesday committed to support for First Nations-led solutions for family wellness. The federal government has also set up access to counselling for residential school survivors, has established a crisis line (1-866-925-4419) and has developed a brochure on how to cope with “emotional reactions.” Questions remain about the adequacy of these support services, but it’s a start.

Some Canadians express doubt over whether these compensation packages are warranted. They’re shortsighted.

Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were harmed under these regimes, as are their families, by extension. Within the past year, mass graves have been discovered at former residential schools.

When we know of a child in an abusive home in our neighbourhood, we feel compelled to do something. What happened to many Indigenous people is abuse on a large scale — in regards to clean drinking water, it’s an ongoing inequity at some First Nations.

“Indigenous families have been affected by a system that has been cruel and discriminatory,” Hajdu said Tuesday. “$40,000 is not enough to make someone whole but it certainly is a step in the right direction of acknowledging the harm that’s been experienced by individuals.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller added, “Historic injustices require historic reparations.”

Sounds about right, even if long overdue.

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