For over 30 years, Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, has worked in child welfare and Indigenous children’s rights. A long-time activist, Blackstock is noted for her work alongside First Nations colleagues on a landmark human rights challenge to Canada’s inequitable provision of child and family services.
They proved the government failed to uphold Jordan’s Principle, which mandates the government pay for services needed by children and seek reimbursement later. This prevents children from being denied or receiving delayed access to services such as healthcare while the provincial and federal governments have pay disputes.
Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and a professor at McGill University’s School of Social Work.
We sat down (virtually) with Blackstock, a keynote speaker at the upcoming Together|Ensemble conference, to learn about her perspectives on reconciliation, how we can more effectively demand justice for First Nations communities, and our responsibility to generations to come.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been challenging the Canadian government for years regarding equality for First Nations children. Can you break down this work for us?
The federal government funds all public services on reserves and has done so since confederation. For at least 113 years — and there’s documented evidence — Canada has severely underfunded those services. When it’s coupled with the trauma of colonialism and residential schools, these communities don’t have the same opportunities to succeed in caring for their children.
What we have been doing is trying to ensure that First Nations children have the services that they need to thrive. The legal case we launched was after 10 years of working with the Canadian government to identify shortfalls in child welfare and other children’s services and to propose solutions. Canada has not implemented them, so we launched a legal case to require them to remedy this discrimination.
What needs to change in order to eliminate these types of systemic inequalities?
We have to speak up against it. It’s that simple. We just have to organize ourselves as the public and say that racial discrimination in public services is wrong and we will not elect any officials who supports this, either in words or by their lack of action. If Canadians did that, this would end overnight.
In the vast majority of circumstances, the federal government knows what needs to be done, they’ve just not done it. We cannot accept excuses like ‘We’re working hard,’ ‘It’s complicated,’ or ‘You can’t expect change overnight.’ Yes, you can.
How do you think we’re doing in terms of reconciliation?
I think that Canadian children are actually doing quite well. As they’re growing up in schools and learning more about the contemporary injustices and the roots of those colonial injustices, they are becoming live actors in implementing reconciliation.
Where I think things are lagging, for many Canadian adults who didn’t get the benefit of that education, they’ve normalized this discrimination and so did the government. It should not take 10 non-compliance orders to get the government to stop racially discriminating against children when it acknowledges it’s doing that.
How can Canadians practice reconciliation and be allies to Indigenous communities?
The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society has developed seven ways for people to engage themselves in solutions based on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.
One of these is the ‘I Am A Witness’ campaign. We uploaded all of the relevant documents online regarding the case about discrimination in child welfare funding, and we invited Canadians to go to website or come to the hearings in person and simply watch. Discrimination does not like a witness. Canadians can watch the evidence and make up their own minds.
You mention a disconnect between what the government is saying and doing. How can Canadians read between the lines to identify this kind of disconnect?
People can read the written submissions to the tribunal case on the I Am A Witness website. It’s night and day between what the prime minister and the ministers say, compared to what they file legally. It’s not a political party issue; all the parties have been complicit in the problem. We have to measure them by their results, not their rhetoric.
When you hear them making budget announcements and they say, ‘This is not enough but it’s a good first step,’ you need to ask yourself why First Nations children are being asked to put up with partial equality when other kids don’t spend their time fighting to have schools with running water or without mould.
I really recommend people to watch Indigenous media, like the Aboriginal People’s Television Network and CBC Indigenous to get the other side of the story. People can also follow organizations like ours that are not political and that are involved in monitoring the government’s behaviour.
What’s the intersection between the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and justice for Indigenous people in Canada?
The SDGs are really relevant for First Nations people because they’re targeted around education, equity, health, and dealing with structural discrimination.
What’s missing with the SDGs is the same thing that’s missing with the government — a public demand that they be implemented. It’s not enough for the government to put out a poster saying that they support the SDGs. Where is the plan to implement the SDGs with First Nations? How much money will you put to it every year? How will you be held accountable?
What’s your biggest hope for First Nations children?
I’m asking the government to implement the charter that says you don’t discriminate against a group of people. It’s not complicated. I also don’t think it’s constructive to just criticise the government, you have to come with a solution, and that’s where the Spirit Bear Plan comes in. [This is a plan by The Caring Society on how the government can end inequalities in public services for First Nations communities.]
We all have a chance to make sure this is a generation of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children who don’t have to recover from their childhood. The good news is it will cost you nothing. All you need to do is let your elected officials know you want to end to any government-based discrimination. I’m hopeful it’ll happen as long as Canadians keep the pressure. I think that is always the challenge and the opportunity we have.