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Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

Cindy Blackstock believes she was born for this fight and who could disagree.

She has led the legal fight against the Canadian government to end critical underfunding of First Nations children for more than 15 years and she has won a great victory. Yet she knows the fight is not yet over even as she has a new enemy in her sights.

Blackstock is a member of the Gitxsan Nation and grew up in northern British Columbia just east of the Rocky Mountains northern range, in Canada’s most western province. At the end of 2021, the Canadian government finally offered a $31.6 billion agreement to compensate children and family members who were denied equitable services and care and to transform the child welfare system.

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Blackstock is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS) a nonprofit group that provides reconciliation-based public education, research, and support to promote the safety and well-being of First Nations children and families.

It was a long time coming. On Feb. 23, 2007, FNCFCS and the Assembly of First Nations , the national organization representing First Nations, filed a human rights complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in a test of what is known as “Jordan's Principle.”

Jordan River Anderson was a citizen of the Norway House Cree Nation, Manitoba, who died in the hospital at the age of 5 when he could have been at a family home. He had a rare muscular disorder that required intensive treatment and had been released by his doctors to a home in the city of Winnipeg.

In Canada, health care is supposed to be a universal right, but not for First Nations. Health care is provided by the provinces, in this case the province of Manitoba; First Nations healthcare is paid for by the federal government. Anderson required home care services from the province of Manitoba, but they wouldn't provide it unless the Canadian government would pay for it, and the government would not. Jordan was denied care that would have been made available to a non-First Nations child.

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In response to Anderson's death, First Nations communities began to advocate for Jordan's Principle to ensure that First Nations children would have equal access to health and educational services. Provinces across the country have committed to the principle but the government of Canada has been discriminating in how it pays.

In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favor of the complaint and called on the federal government to fund First Nations children fairly. In subsequent years, the federal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals has fought against the ruling in various appeals but has continued to lose not only in court but in public opinion.

But there was no line-item funding in the Canadian Federal Budget announced on April 7, just the statement that “Canada also continues to work with partners to finalize settlements that will deliver on the historic $40 billion agreements-in-principle announced on January 4, 2022.”

Throughout it all, Blackstock has remained at the forefront, taking the battle to the courtroom as well as to the front lines of advocacy, public relations and education.

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen on Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on May 27, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been found buried on the site of the former residential school. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press via AP)

In an interview with Indian Country Today, she talked about being inspired by the civil rights movement as a child and what keeps her going against such overwhelming odds. She vows that the historic win over the Canadian government has not ended her fighting spirit. And she talks about her next battle – the fight for First Nations children to have fresh water.

Here is an excerpt of the Indian Country Today interview with Blackstock.

We’d like to start off with the decision that was made at the end of last year. How significant was that?

It was the first time that we've seen the government of Canada acknowledge that in a very public way that discrimination is ongoing and to announce serious measures to stop the discrimination and prevent it from occurring. So that was an important moment, because up until then, they would talk about the injustices to First Nations kids as being historic or that they were working hard to fix them, and we should be satisfied with that. And they would even proclaim themselves compliant with the legal orders, even though there were over two dozen legal orders saying that they weren't compliant. So, it was a breakthrough.

But the importance is that that was nonbinding. And so, we need to see them actually implement these measures to really make sure that children and families benefit.

Was it shocking to see how ferociously the government fought against this order?

Yes, it was. It was because we had fought them in court. It's our fifth anniversary. But for the 10 years prior to that decision, Canada fought the case to the nail on legal technicalities. But a year before the decision came out — so this would have been 2015 — the survivors had courageously told their truths in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their top calls to action were ensuring that the government of Canada isn't victimizing another generation of children. So, equity and child welfare, equity and other children's services, were a top priority of the survivors.

The prime minister agreed with that. He said, “I will adopt these calls to action from the survivors.” He didn't do it. And then when there was a legal order for them to do it, they still didn't do it. So, we've had now, I think, 21 noncompliance and procedural orders and two federal court applications by Canada dismissed. And it was only after that and the awakening of the public pressure due to the discovery of the children in the unmarked graves that really brought Canada to a point where they then announced change. But now they have to do the change.

You feel like that was a big factor in moving things forward, this realization or further evidence about the Indian Residential School System? This is the kind of system that was in place. This is what is going on in our country. And it is such a shocking realization for so many mainstream Canadians that this is the true history of Canada.

Yes, I think it was getting out there in that moment and saying to Canadians, not only is this an affirmation of the survivors’ truths – truths that you've heard before, but you didn't, weren't, able to focus on – you looked away too quickly. This is an opportunity to become curious about the current injustices that are happening and to fulfill the obligation that the survivors left for us which is, “Don't let this happen to my grandchildren,” and it is happening.

As a member of the public you need to do more than wear an orange shirt. You need to get a hold of your Member of Parliament, tell them to stop underfunding all these First Nations Children's Services, to follow the legal orders, and to reform the government itself so that it doesn't victimize another generation of kids.

And I think that many Canadians took that to heart and did just that and the public pressure became at such a point that the prime minister was asked about this in the election debates. This became an election issue. Why are you fighting First Nations kids in court, as we're seeing communities do ground-penetrating radar to find more children in graves of residential schools that were operated by the federal government itself?

And you’re making that connection that this system – if you want to just ultimately call the system a genocide – that it continued on through the 1960s and into the child welfare system that we have today.

Right, and that we've all been subjected to colonial propaganda that has normalized this discrimination. So even in First Nations communities, many of them never have had clean water. You do what you would do, which is make the best of it and hope that you get clean water soon. But these cross-cutting inequalities are so graphic across every public service on First Nations, and they've existed for so long, that we normalized it. And I think to a degree, the Canadian public did. too. “Oh, there's another First Nation without water.” Whereas if that was a non-Indigenous person or community without water, there'd be public outrage and TV cameras on every block.

We have to use this as a moment to acknowledge that the propaganda campaign has been there, that colonial propaganda continues to shape the way that we look at these graphic human rights abuses. The historical pattern is that even in residential schools, the government of Canada knew that children were dying. They had remedies to save many of the children's lives; they chose not to do it.

It hit the newspapers even as early as 1908, about Canada's chronic underfunding of health and how that was linked to the deaths of children in residential schools. At that time, they were dying at a rate of 50 percent over three years. That was in the newspapers, headlines like, “They're dying like flies.” Absolute inattention to bare necessities of health. What happened is that the media stories died, and public attention waned, and the children died as a result, and we see this pattern throughout Canada's history. So, we're able to show that to the Canadian public and say, “This time, don't look away.”

Can we roll back a bit to the beginning of the case against Canada? When was the decision? How was that decision formulated?

In 2000, we worked with First Nations experts and our political body, the Assembly of First Nations of Canada. We documented at that time that First Nations kids were getting 70 cents worth of Child and Family Services compared to others, and there were huge deficits in family wellness to recover from residential schools. There were suggestions on how to fix it. Canada acknowledged it, didn't do it. Then they wanted another report in 2005. We did it, by then the inequality had grown. Canada acknowledged it, didn't implement it.

And that's when we got to a point where we realized that there was this long pattern of alerting Canada to these inequalities, the serious harms to children and Canada choosing not to do it. We realized we could no longer rely on reports, evidence and Canada’s voluntary action, that we will have to do something to compel them to act. It was clear to us that one of those ways had to be legal. And in taking that action, it was quite likely that Canada would retaliate. And in fact, it did — within 30 days, it cut all of our funding. So, we're actually not funded by the government, which gives us a lot of independence, but we just about didn't make it.

Can you point to a time when you were growing up or through your early years that you felt put you on this path?

A lot of people asked me that question. One of the elders told me, and I think it's true, that I was born into it. I grew up in northern British Columbia, in the bush. My dad was at the Forest Service. And I remember, this is going to date me, I remember, all we had was black and white TV. And we'd have to watch the news because there's only one channel and that’s what my dad wanted to watch. I remember seeing images of the civil rights movement in the United States. And being horrified. I couldn't figure it out. Why these people were being treated so badly? And as a five-year-old, I thought, what did they do wrong? Why? Or is everybody mad at them? Right? When, of course, my mom and dad would say, “Well, they didn't do anything wrong.”

I was always a talker, and when we would go to town, I would ask questions about this to the people. And they would always be on the side of, “Well, yeah, you know, it doesn't make any sense. You know, they’re racist.” But these were the same people who I'd overhear saying, “They’re just a bunch of drunk Indians,” and everything else. And they never expected very much of me other than to grow up to be a drunk. And I thought that wasn't the way I saw myself. And it wasn't the way I saw my family and community.

I saw the impacts of the trauma. But back then I didn't really understand how we were getting piled on with more trauma, thanks to Canada's colonialism, but they were giving us far fewer resources to deal with it. And as that became so clear to me, I thought somebody had to do something about this. And I was equally convinced that wasn't me. I thought, “There's got to be someone out there smarter than I am, who's going to deal with this.” I'm just going to do my little part in my small way and wait around for someone to do it. Eventually, I had to.

You know, there's a poem by Patrick Overton that says, “When you step across the place from light into darkness, you must believe there will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught to fly.”

And I thought, I have got to do something. I don't know what the heck I'm going to do. But we’ve got to do something. And I stepped across that line. And believed there would be something solid to stand on or I would be taught to fly. This case has been really spiritually guided, in my view; there's been a lot of good people who have come when we are about to make a mistake or make the wrong answer. It's really just about getting in there. And it's about being willing to do what the elder told us when we formed the caring society. He said, “Never fall in love with the Caring Society and never fall in love with your business card. Only fall in love with the children because there might come a time when you have to sacrifice both those things for them.” And for us, that was when we filed the case. And we knew the feds would cut us 100 percent. And they did. I think that those kinds of moments just really shaped the decision for the Caring Society going forward.

So where are things now in terms of what has developed in the last month or so? And are they moving in a way that you feel are in a positive or good direction?

We're now getting ready for a consent order to be filed with the tribunal that would require the government to provide additional funding for prevention services for families and post-majority (age) care for those young people who ended up in care so that they have some transition into young adulthood. If they deliver on that, that will be one positive sign.

But there's more to do, we need to think about what a long-term funding approach is to address the inequalities over the longer run. And then we need to reform the government so that it doesn't discriminate again or at least we do everything we can to make sure it doesn't. Then there's a third piece that doesn't get talked about very much. This case we brought was on Child and Family Services and something called Jordan's Principle, which is about making sure kids can access public services when they need them.

But this case does not resolve water, housing, education shortfalls — all of these other inequalities are brewing around. And there's no government commitment to address all of them. We have something called the Spirit Bear Plan, which is to get the parliamentary budget officer to cost out all of the inequalities and then develop something like the Marshall Plan to get rid of them.

Part of the colonial cocktail and this propaganda has been to deal with one program at a time and one drop at a time. And that kind of process is really putting the childhoods and the lives of First Nations kids at risk in real time. So even if we're successful and we land everything here, and those other apartheid services continue, then we haven't done the work that we need to do.

You see a few more battles ahead.

I think so, because I really think that First Nations kids are worth it. I want them to grow up not having to dream about getting a clean glass of water. I want them to dream of becoming an astronaut or a superhero or whatever, but not about getting a clean glass of water and a school without black mold. I want those days to be behind us. 

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