'An absolute embarrassment': Cindy Blackstock on Canada's treatment of First Nations kids

In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the government to stop discriminating against First Nations children. A year later, Blackstock aims to make sure it does.
cindy blackstock on her fight for first nations kids Activist and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Cindy Blackstock. Photo,  Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick.

Cindy Blackstock is friendly and full of energy. She is a gifted speaker — clear, smart, a captivating story teller. But she is no diplomat. She believes Canadians are good people, but she also believes that we are complicit in racially discriminating against First Nations children.

There are more First Nations kids in out-of-home care today than there were at the height of the residential school system. They make up nearly half the children in foster care, according to Statistics Canada, while only making up seven percent of children in total. And yet they receive much less funding for child welfare services than the rest of Canadian children — 22 percent less, according to a joint review done by First Nations groups and the government of Canada in 2000.

Blackstock has devoted her life to righting this wrong. Ten years ago, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, where Blackstock is executive director, together with the Assembly of First Nations, brought a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, arguing that the government of Canada racially discriminates against First Nations children. The government pushed back with multiple legal challenges but in January 2016, the Tribunal agreed with Blackstock and ordered Canada to end its discrimination immediately.

A year and change later, Blackstock is not satisfied with the government's progress. The Caring Society and the AFN have filed motions to the Tribunal arguing that Canada is not complying with the order, and the parties will return to the Tribunal this week (March 22–24) for a hearing on the matter.

I met with Blackstock in February, when she was in Toronto to receive the Law Society of Upper Canada’s 2016 Human Rights Award. 

cindy blackstock on her fight for first nations kids Blackstock with Spirit Bear, who she brings to hearings to help "bear witness" to the process and remind those attending of the children's lives on whose behalf she's advocating.

How do you feel about where things are at now with your fight for First Nations kids? The past 10 years have felt surreal to me. I started this whole endeavour 20 years ago, and I was so naïve. I thought all that needed to be done was to demonstrate these dramatic inequalities that First Nations children experience, develop evidence-based, economically tested solutions — with the government, so that they agree with them — and then they would do the right thing. We did that twice — two different studies — before we even filed the case. I’ve got letters on file from the ministers of those days, letters of commendation about the great work we’d done. But they didn’t implement [changes] for kids, which is why we filed the case.

It was a big decision. I’ve always believed that you have to live your life in concert with you values. And I knew that involved sacrifice. [The] we were up at Parliament, it was a beautiful day — clear blue skies in February — and I was stunned we had to file it all. We were talking about the government of Canada racially discriminating against 163,000 children to try and save money. Like, what could be more egregious to Canadians than that? And yet there was nobody there. I saw people taking pictures at the Eternal Flame, and I thought back to protests on other issues that didn’t seem quite as important, and I thought, where is everybody? Canadians are caring people who believe in fairness and justice — where are they?

So how do you understand that — where are they? Well, I believe it gets back to Gord Downie, he had it right. He said that people have been trained their entire lives to look away. When we look at the average Canadian today, they learn very little about First Nations people. They are often fed a steady diet of stereotypes — First Nations people are getting more than everybody else; they simply aren’t grateful, nothing will satisfy them; they aren’t getting off their rear ends and doing what needs to be done to improve their lot. And so we have to somehow pierce through that. When it came to refugees, Canadians’ first reaction wasn’t judgment, it was compassion. And yet when talking about the racial discrimination of 163,000 children, the children of the residential school survivors, too often the reflex is judgment.


Why do you think that is? Because we don’t want to think of our government doing that. We don’t want to think about our responsibility in this whole undertaking. Our responsibility either in being complicit with it, or in not speaking up. And I think there’s some racism in there.

You’ve said Canadians need to feel racism toward First Nations people as “fingernails on the blackboard of their consciousness” — that’s how much it needs to hurt before we’ll do anything about it. I think that racism as fiscal policy is so ingrained in the Canadian governance model that it’s akin to an artery. They protect it with all their might; there are all kinds of ways they do it. They suggest that we’re broke, and yet we can afford a half-billion dollar birthday party. They suggest that the problems are too complex; we can’t get water to a First Nation an hour and a half outside of Toronto but we can somehow get it pumping in an earthquake zone halfway around the world. That’s why I really believe that governments will not change unless Canadians change. Unless the people of the period wake up and see this egregious assault on Canadian values for what it is.

Are you pissed off? Sure. Ten years ago I would have said [there] a proper reaction from a First Nations person. We’re written off when we’re too angry; we’re ignored if we’re too polite. But I actually think being angry is probably the right emotion.


Have you grown more confident saying that over the years? I always tried to be cautious in what I said, I never wanted to overstate things. But since [the] decision came down, I mean, it’s in black and white. It’s a legal decision. Nowhere in the world has a government been on trial for its contemporary treatment of a generation of First Nations kids before a body that can make enforceable orders. And Canada agreed with it — they didn’t judicially review it. It’s no longer a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of law.

What have been some of the biggest setbacks? For me, the death of Shannen Koostachin [a young activist from Attawapiskat who campaigned for safe schools for First Nations children and was killed in a car accident in 2010 at age 15]. We were in the middle of arguing one of the motions to dismiss on a technicality. I was in New Brunswick the day before those hearings, and I got the phone call that Shannen had died in a car accident. I was sitting there in the airport, and I just felt like, God, we’ve moved too slow.

When I walked into that hearing room the next day, I looked around and I thought, what a joke. What an absolute embarrassment. Here we are, arguing about a legal technicality, about not being able to compare federally funded services and provincially funded services, and ignoring the result of that, which is that kids like Shannen are dying. And Canada would say "well we weren’t responsible for her death," and they’re right in some ways in that they didn’t drive the car that [crashed] and killed her. But Shannen wouldn’t have been driving to that school [in] had the one in her community been properly funded.


Have you ever been afraid? Yes, for a couple of different reasons. One is, what if we lose? What happens to these kids? On a personal level, [I] in 2009. I went to a meeting at Indian Affairs, and they refused to hold the meeting if I was in the room, and they insisted I sit outside, and I was guarded by a security guard… I don’t even have parking tickets, let alone a criminal record! I’ve never even been out on a roadblock. Like, how much less threatening can you be?

Where is home for you? I live in Ottawa, I teach in Montreal. Air Canada is mostly where I live. I think home to me is B.C. When I go over those mountains… I love Vancouver, I lived there for 20 years. That still feels like the place where I can kind of [exhale]. My house in Ottawa is important to me. It’s kind of my anchor, my little salvation. But home has never been that important. Doing something with my life, taking full advantage of the blessing I’ve been given to work in the company of others, to do something that maybe leaves the world in a better place. That’s really the definition of a life well lived.


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