Cindy Blackstock's long fight for the rights of First Nations children

Cindy Blackstock's long fight for the rights of First Nations children

Cindy Blackstock is a member of the Gitksan First Nation, a social worker, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, and the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. She is also the most visible face of the long-term effort to get the Canadian government to end the ongoing injustice in its treatment of First Nations children. Scott Neigh interviews her about the pervasive underfunding of public services on reserves today, its connection to the legacy of residential schools, and the many years of work by the Caring Society for the rights of First Nations children.

One of the many ways that settler colonialism has always happened is through attacking Indigenous children. Historically in Canada, this happened most visibly through the residential school system. Residential schools are now a thing of the past, and indeed organizing by survivors of the schools and their communities and allies has done important work to push for justice on that issue. But today's guest argues that the Canadian state continues to actively and knowingly inflict injustice on Indigenous children -- the form has changed, but the harm persists.

For most people, most of the social and health services and much of the basic infrastructure that we depend on are funded by our provincial government. In First Nations reserve communities, however, social and health services and basic infrastructure are funded by the federal government. And that funding is consistently much lower than what provinces provide for everyone else, which means that First Nations people have less access to the supports that all of us need.

Blackstock had already seen plenty of evidence of the harmful impacts of this disaprity during her years working for a provincial child welfare organization, but it was only when she changed jobs that it really hit home. She moved to another child welfare organization right across the street, except this one was not provincial but rather was the child welfare organization for the Squamish Nation. In this federally funded organization, she was far less able to access the resources she needed to try to support families and keep them together.

In 1998, she and others organized a meeting of First Nations agencies involved in child welfare from across Canada, and it was out of the process that began in that meeting that the Caring Society was eventually founded. Initially, the organization worked to develop a clearer picture of the pervasive underfunding of public services on reserves, and ended up working with the federal government to document it and to develop a funding formula that would have helped to address it. The government chose not to act on the problem. This led to the 2007 decision by the Caring Society, along with the Assembly of First Nations, to launch a human rights complaint that argued that the underfunding of child welfare services on reserves was racial discrimination against at least 165,000 First Nations children and their families.

The Canadian government fought this case in every way they could. They immediately cut core funding to the Caring Society, and all funding not long after. They argued on legal technicalities to have it dismissed, never successfully, but such that the actual hearings were not able to begin until 2013. They put Blackstock under surveillance, seeking anything they could use to try and derail the case -- a move that both the federal privacy commissioner and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal later condemned.

In 2016, the tribunal ruled in favour of the complaint, and found the unequal funding of child welfare to be racially discriminatory. They also found the government's failure to implement Jordan's Principle -- which requires that the government prioritize providing access to public services for First Nations children over jurisdictional wrangling -- was also discriminatory. And even so, the federal government has delayed and objected and refused to act every step of the way. The Caring Society has had to return multiple times to the tribunal to get detailed compliance orders to get the government to actually implement the requirements of the original ruling. Though this has, slowly, resulted in improvements, they have had to return to the tribunal yet again in early 2019.

As they continue to wage this specific fight, the Caring Society's longer term vision includes promoting what they call the Spirit Bear Plan -- a sort of 21st-century Marshall Plan that would commit Canada to a path of rectifying the underfunding of all public services on reserves once and for all -- and calling on all Canadians to act in a range of ways that will make a....

Blackstock sees the current situation as connected to the residential school era in multiple ways. For one thing, not only are public services underfunded on reserves, but they are underfunded on reserves in the context of need actually being higher on reserves precisely because of the intergenerational trauma caused by things that the Canadian state itself has done to Indigenous people, including residential schools. For another, the kinds of impacts are analagous -- both residential schools and the disproportionate apprehension of First Nations children by child welfare authorities have inflicted traumas related to dislocation from family, community, culture, language, and land. And finally, in both instances -- and Blackstock points to well-documented events in the early 20th century in the case of residential schools – the Canadian state has been repeatedly and thoroughly warned that it was doing harm, and told what it needed to do to reduce that harm, and it has routinely refused to do those things, except when forced to do so.

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