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Supreme Court upholds Ottawa's Indigenous child welfare act, denies Quebec's appeal

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OTTAWA -

Indigenous communities and leaders across the country cheered Friday as the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the federal government's child welfare law, affirming that First Nations, Metis and Inuit have sole authority over the protection of their children.

The unanimous decision is a setback for the Quebec government, which won a victory in 2022 when the Court of Appeal found that parts of the act overstepped federal jurisdiction.

Indigenous leaders lauded the high court's findings as dozens of the very children at the heart of the decision ran rampant around an Ottawa conference room.

"Our peoples have compromised enough," said Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador regional chief Ghislain Picard.

A group of children wearing ribbon skirts, kokum scarves and ribbon shirts sat in front of him as he spoke.

"It's time now for other governments to do the same."

Friday's decision upholding the 2019 law ultimately affirmed that Indigenous Peoples have an inherent right to self-government that includes control over child and family services.

"The act as a whole is constitutionally valid," the court wrote in an 110-page decision, adding that it "falls squarely within Parliament's legislative jurisdiction."

Ottawa's law affirmed the right of Indigenous Peoples to run their own child protection services and included sections that said Indigenous legislation had the force of federal law and could supersede provincial law.

Assembly of First Nations national chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak called the decision a significant step forward.

"First Nations have never surrendered their jurisdiction over their children and families, which has existed since time immemorial," Woodhouse Nepinak said.

"First Nations continue to have the inherent and constitutional right to care for our children and families, along with our sacred rights from Creator to raise our children surrounded by our cultures, languages, and traditions."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Indigenous children have "for far too long" been put in foster homes, sometimes far away from their communities, that were not grounded in Indigenous language and traditions.

"That has perhaps gotten them out of harm's way in the immediate, but has left them with scarring -- loss of identity, loss of language and a disconnection from their cultures that has had devastating impacts."

Asked whether, if elected, he would stand by the law, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said his party believes in "more autonomy for First Nations communities and less paternalistic control by government."

He said the Conservatives would "respect the rights of First Nations families to raise their own children."

NDP MP Lori Idlout, who also serves as her party's critic of Indigenous services, said First Nations, Metis and Inuit had their own laws prior to Confederation, and that she hopes Ottawa will respect their jurisdiction.

On Quebec, Idlout said she hopes the province realizes it has an obligation to foster positive relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

Nothing in the division of powers between the federal government and the provinces prevents Parliament from affirming that Indigenous Peoples' inherent right of selfΓÇægovernment includes legislative authority over child and family services, the high court said.

"The essential matter addressed by the act involves protecting the well-being of Indigenous children, youth and families by promoting the delivery of culturally appropriate child and family services and, in so doing, advancing the process of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples," the court wrote.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said the decision paves the way for more Indigenous autonomy in areas like health care and water quality.

"Today is truly historic," Hajdu said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2024.

-- With files from Anja Karadeglija in Ottawa

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