June was already a politically significant month for Indigenous Peoples.
It’s also the month when Shannen Koostachin — the Attawapiskat teenager who advocated for safe and equitable schools for First Nations kids — died tragically in a car crash 11 years ago. Shannen’s Dream, a campaign by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to achieve “safe and comfy schools” for Indigenous children in Canada, is named in her honour.
The anniversary of Koostachin’s death Tuesday and her unfulfilled dream hit Cindy Blackstock, the society’s executive director, particularly hard this year. It came just days after the Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation announced the discovery of the remains of 215 children and youth on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
While Indigenous children are no longer forced into residential schools in Canada, they continue to be overrepresented in the child welfare system across Canada, making up over 50 per cent of the kids in care nationwide. Governments continue to underfund and neglect First Nations kids, both on and off-reserve, and fight court-ordered compensation for them.
That’s why Blackstock is heading back to court on June 14. The federal government has repeatedly failed to adequately compensate 165,000 First Nations children and families whose childhoods — and lives — were stolen through government neglect, she says.
Blackstock has already fought the government on this issue and won. In 2007, she and the Assembly of First Nations first filed a Canadian Human Rights Commission complaint alleging the federal government had discriminated against Indigenous children by providing less funding and poorer services for family and child welfare than it did for non-Indigenous children.
In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled Canada’s treatment of on-reserve and Yukon-based First Nations kids and families was “a prima facie case of discrimination.”
The tribunal ordered the government to end the discrimination, update its funding formula for on-reserve child and family services and provide $40,000 in compensation to each child who was taken away from their families for reasons other than abuse, or had their medical treatment denied or delayed by government.
The order also told the government to fully implement Jordan’s Principle — a policy stating that governments should pay the medical bills of any First Nations child, on or off-reserve.
But despite repeated non-compliance orders Blackstock has won against the government, it continues to fight the tribunal’s order in court, arguing systematic discrimination should not be addressed with individual payments.
The Tyee spoke with Blackstock Tuesday as she geared up to head back to court. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: How does the discovery of the remains of 215 kids impact how you view the government’s actions on Indigenous child equity today?
Cindy Blackstock: It reinforces the responsibility that I and everyone else have to make sure the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action are actually implemented. And that the federal government stops fighting against the equity of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children today, and stops fighting residential school survivors in court.
How long can the government legally avoid paying up and adequately funding services?
This will continue until the Canadian public says, “Enough, you’re not doing this in our name. You’re not going to racially discriminate against little kids in ways that separate them from their families or cause their harms or deaths. And we will not support any government of any political stripe who continues that behaviour.” That’s what needs to happen.
And this is why I have hope. I think these 215 sacred little kids have managed to pierce through this dehumanization, this idea these kids are statistics. People can viscerally feel that these were little children, and they died alone, afraid and away from their family. That is not OK. We need to keep that same feeling when we look at Canada’s conduct in two weeks as they litigate against this generation of kids.
How are these delays impacting First Nations kids and families right now?
What we know from the tribunal’s uncontested legal findings is that Canada’s non-compliance has been linked to the deaths of some children, harms to other children and unnecessary family separations of thousands of others. So it’s not unlike the types of things that children in residential schools faced. Canada is continuing that behaviour.
How do you think the government’s refusal to pay up affects how non-Indigenous people view Indigenous people in Canada?
A non-Indigenous young girl who was inspired by Shannen Koostachin said to me, “You know what discrimination is? It’s when the government doesn’t think you’re worth the money.” And I think that is the message the Canadian government has been sending to First Nations, Métis and Inuit children.
But it’s also the message it’s sending to other Canadians. I find it absolutely shocking and inhumane. What Canada is saying is if you discriminate against one person, you could be held accountable and have to pay compensation. But discriminate and hurt as many people as possible, and then it becomes systemic discrimination, and you are not going to be held accountable for paying compensation.
It would be akin to saying to the family of Joyce Echaquan, with the horrendous treatment she received in that hospital, that she is not a victim entitled to compensation, because what she experienced was systemic discrimination. Or indeed even Mr. George Floyd in the U.S., murdered by police, would be not entitled to any compensation because he’s a victim of systemic discrimination.
What we’re talking about here is $40,000 for a lost childhood or a child’s lost life. And if the prime minister thinks that’s too much money, the question for him is: how much money does he think a child’s life is worth?
Is this apartheid?
Yes, that’s exactly what it is. It’s apartheid public services. And it’s made possible because of the Indian Act. That was the same piece of law that allowed for the forcible removal of children and their placement in residential schools.
And it’s still with us today. It not only creates this cascade of racial discrimination; it also mandates these racial identification cards called status cards that Canada hands out. And they determine who is and who is not a status Indian, and therefore who does have any land rights. They hold that definition and they tried to make sure that as few people as possible meet that definition.
This is our Mississippi. But Canada has threaded this type of discrimination into the DNA of the government, and it has kept caring Canadians in the dark. That’s starting to change now. People are starting to wake up and ask the right questions and do their own self-education.
But for far too long this was human rights abuse and, indeed, prolific mass deaths of children by government policy.
What role have the opposition parties played in holding the government to account?
There have been a lot of shining examples of good people who have come forward and done their part as individual members of Parliament. I think of Jean Crowder who brought the motion on Jordan’s Principle, and Charlie Angus for his good support of Shannen’s Dream. And there are others in the other parties who have done similarly.
But what hasn’t happened is the opposition parties have not sustained the pressure on the government. I can’t really think of many other national issues that are as important as ending apartheid provision of public services to kids who are facing death, harm and unnecessary family separation.
But far too often, it takes a crisis in the news cycle to get this onto the Parliament floor. There needs to be ongoing, everyday questions of why the government is continuing to do this.
We are going to court to deal with Canada trying to overturn the compensation order for the 165,000 kids. It’s also trying to deny Jordan’s Principle help to children off-reserve. In addition, we’re going to continue to litigate against them at the tribunal to try and force them into compliance.
I also hope that what has happened here really awakens the public to print off a copy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. And no matter who shows up at their doorstep for the federal election, they need to ask them what they’re going to do in real, specific terms to implement all of them. And if they don’t have a plan, they don’t get your vote.
Outside of elections, what can the Canadian public do to hold officials accountable?
Call them, email them, get on Twitter, tag them, send them your messages that you want this discrimination to end. Learn about the Spirit Bear Plan, which is a plan to end all of the inequalities facing First Nations children that Canada has never adopted. And also you can go to our website and find seven free ways you can help, for people of any age.