Defending the Rights of Indigenous Children in Canada: An Interview with Professor Cindy Blackstock

Published Monday, September 04, 2017

Sarah M Mah, Kateryna Gordiychuk



Dr. Cindy Blackstock is a professor at the McGill School of Social Work, and a member of the Gitskan First Nations. She has 25 years of experience in child protection and Indigenous children’s rights. She is also the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. One of our goals at IWEM is to promote the work of women leaders at McGill. We had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Blackstock to talk about her work defending the rights of Indigenous children, and her experiences as an Indigenous woman leader.






*These selected excerpts have been shortened and edited for clarity. Listen to the audio recording for the full interview.


On the challenges of leading an independent organization dedicated to First Nations children


The Caring Society has been an incredible force in the discussion in Canada around rights for Indigenous kids. Tell us about the strengths and challenges of being an independent organization.


Since confederation, the federal government has provided sufficiently less funding for First Nations children on reserve and in the Yukon than all other Canadians received, and then wove this narrative in Canada amongst the public that the First Nations actually get more...that is not a matter of controversy and the facts. The facts are well-positioned, not only in the government’s own documents, but by all credible research and reviews. So then the question becomes, what do you do about it - when the government knows better, and isn’t doing better? And on this level, having such egregious impacts for generations of First Nations kids.


We created the Caring Society to deal with that, and then that’s where [an] Elder gave us some good advice. 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 kids, because there may come a day when you have to sacrifice both those things for them.” He knew that we were facing one of the most powerful institutions of society, and that they would not be relenting. They would not give way to their discriminatory behavior without a fight - even though it’s best for the country. That’s the thing. You get into a lot more trouble for doing the right thing than you do for work doing the wrong thing in life’s long civil battles. We’ve seen that around the world.


Within 30 days of filing the human rights complaint against the Canadian government, we lost all of our court funding, and we’re completely without any government funding within a matter of months. We had 50,000 dollars in the bank, and people said to me, "you know, you’re not gonna be able to make it. You just blew it really". Now, the only national organization that was speaking for First Nations kids is not going to exist anymore. And I said, "that’s probably true". But if we leave one legacy for this generation of kids, I want it to be that we loved them enough to stand up for them.


If the Caring Society goes down for that, that’s okay. I don’t want [the Society] to die on its knees as an organization that compromised [the children’s] childhoods.


On Jordan’s Principle, and the impact of Canada’s non-compliance on health services to Indigenous children and women


You have recently written and spoken extensively about the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal about Canada’s non-compliance on health services to Indigenous children. Can you talk a little bit about Jordan’s principle?


So Jordan was one of those kids who wasn’t worth the money to the government of Canada. He was born in 1999 in Norway House Cree Nation to a family who loved him. He had to be in-hospital for the first two years of his life because of medical reasons. Many families unfortunately experience this in Canada and know how hard that is, and [...] ...look forward to the day when their child can be discharged. So that was Jordan, too. He would have been discharged when he was two years-old. He had stabilized medically. There was a plan for his care in the community. If he was not Indigenous, everyone agrees on this, he would have gone home.


But because he was First Nations, the federal government and the province argued over who should pay for his at-home care. They left this little baby in the hospital for over two-and-a-half years while they argued about that. He eventually, as his older sister Germaine says, dies of a broken heart. He saw other boys coming in not feeling well into hospital, and they would get better and they would go home, but he was trapped there. He dies at the age of five. The family asks that this never happen to another kid [in the future], and we knew it was First Nations kids who are denied public services available to other kids because of this buck-passing by the government. So Jordan’s Principle is there to ensure that First Nations kids can access all public services on the same terms as other kids. It’s a common sense measure.


In 2007, the House of Commons votes for it, and then the federal government goes about creating a definition so narrow, no child in the country ever qualifies. Even though behind the scenes, their own documents spell out, case after case, where children are being denied even life-saving treatment. The Tribunal says, on January 26, Canada’s construction of Jordan’s Principle is racially discriminatory and orders them to stop. We’re now a year and eighteen months after that, and just last week, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal issued another non-compliance order against Canada, for its failure to comply.


What does Jordan’s Principle mean for Indigenous rights in Canada, and what impact might it have on Indigenous women in particular?


To put this into the context of women’s issues, just a month ago I was on the phone with a mom in Manitoba. She has a critically-ill girl. The government of Canada has capped the number of catheter tubes available to her daughter. The pediatrician has made it clear that more are needed, but Canada is holding to its policy. "We give X amount, and that’s it." So the mom is having to re-wash the catheter tubes, resulting in kidney or urinary tract infections, and kidney scarring. The mom is thinking about how she’s hurt her daughter. She feels so horrible that she’s been unable to get the adequate number, that she’s had to re-wash the catheter tubes, and put her daughter’s health at further risk.


Those are the choices that many First Nations women have to make every single day, and I think caring Canadians can see that it’s completely and ethically unsupportable.


On the connection between the rights of Indigenous women and children in Canada


The rights of children are very closely connected to the rights of women. In your own work, what have you seen of that connection in your own work as a social worker?


In many First Nations cultures, women were not subordinate to men. In my own community for example, for thousands of years we’ve known that men wanted the power, and for thousands of years we’ve known that women should control the power. So it’s interesting. The whole Women’s Lib Movement in Western society, in some ways, was foreign to us culturally, because we’ve never had to struggle for equality - traditionally. Because of colonization, that has shifted in some communities, where men are asserting superiority over women. And certainly that’s the way Indigenous women are viewed in Western society. It’s just along with the overlay of women being lesser-than, there’s the added issue of them being First Nations women and, therefore, being even more undeserving than other citizens are.


It was understood that in traditional times, there’s the positive influence that women could have on society in general, and the positive influence that women have in terms of raising that next generation of children. Those were things that were considered to be sacred and fundamental to the wellbeing of the country. So in many First Nations communities, traditionally, it was women who held the economic power, because they would distribute the resources in ways that everyone would get their fair share.


On the value of Inquiries, Commissions, and making sure Indigenous children stay in the picture


We have the National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and that’s underway. We have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that’s recently concluded. Do you think these national inquiries and commissions are valuable, and how do we ensure that the rights of Indigenous children are always being addressed?


You know, I live by the adage that when you know better, you should do better. The problem with inquiries is that they can be an official excuse to not implement recommendations on the books. I don’t dismiss the value of these inquiries, but I do wonder why the federal government didn’t announce that, "here is the action we’re taking on the good recommendations already on the books that could help Indigenous women and children, and while we’re doing that, we’re going to be launching this inquiry".


Instead, it has been all about, "we’re just going to study this for five or six years, and then we’re going to see what happens". The problem with that is children’s lives and families’ lives don’t get put on hold while these answers get solved. Every day, women and children are experiencing preventable harm. I think as a country, those children deserve a lot better. Those women deserve a lot better. Those families deserve a lot better than that.


Her advice to women and Indigenous women at McGill


We are interested in promoting the work of women at McGill, and promoting women’s equality on campus. What advice can you offer as as an Indigenous women professor at McGill for other women and Indigenous women here?

Not to build those prisons around your own potential. To dare yourself courageously beyond what you think you can do, to what you actually can do. There will be roadblocks, because you’re female, that are put up by institutions and by culture - but don’t give them any power. Push through them. If they push back, then challenge them. But do so in ways that bring integrity to you. Never fight on their bull ground. They will always win, because they are expected to be dirty. We can win as women with integrity, by sticking by our values, by being truthful, and being unafraid - mostly of our own potential. Women have made enormous contributions to this country, and we have much more to give. In fact, I think the world needs us more than ever.


*Photo credit: Cindy Blackstock, McGill University