The time has come to start meeting the needs of First Nations families and children says renowned children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock.
Blackstock has spent the past 15 years in a legal battle with the Canadian government in an effort to end the underfunding of on-reserve child welfare.
She says it is time to take the politics out of the discussion.
“A First Nations child doesn’t know that the federal government and the provincial government are playing these kinds of games that are denying them the opportunities to grow up healthy and proud,” says Blackstock on the latest edition of Face to Face.
“They just know that life is a lot harder for them than it is for other kids and so they do what kids will naturally do which is they take it inside. They start to believe that they’re not good enough, that they’re not smart enough and then we see these terrible rates of suicide in our communities.
“That is the reality of this kind of political showmanship and that’s why we really need to tame politics when it comes to kids.”
Blackstock, who is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, filed a human rights complaint against Ottawa in 2007. A decade later, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled Ottawa was discriminating against First Nation children.
Since that time, the federal government has been hit with 21, non-compliance orders. Blackstock says the shortfalls in First Nation child welfare was first documented in 2000.
“Why didn’t the government act on the underfunding when it knew it existed and when it knew it was driving kids into child welfare care at record rates,” she says. “Well, one of the issues is the federal government, I think, really has a colonial DNA running through its system, that stops it from doing better when it knows better.”
In January, the federal government and First Nations announced details of two, non-binding agreements totalling $40-billion, that, if ratified, could end the 15-year-old legal battle.
Blackstock isn’t celebrating just yet. She worries the federal government mail fail to implement the agreements.
“We’ve seen how governments love symbols to make themselves look good and then they fail to implement. Implementation will be key here,” says Blackstock who wishes a deal would have been reached decades ago,” says Blackstock.
“It was hundreds of millions of dollars to solve the problem back in 2000. The key here is First Nations children, young people and their families would have not suffered in the way they did. Children would’ve most likely not lost their lives. But the Canadian government decided to stall and kick this thing down stream and in that way we had all of these harms building up for kids and that led to the compensation order which is half of this amount, the 20-billion dollars but also the harms for families deepened in a way that hundreds of millions of dollars could no longer fix.”
The deals that have been agreed upon would see $20 billion used to compensate tens of thousands of families victimized over the last three decades. The other $20 billion would be spent on program reforms.
Blackstock says the issues driving the overrepresentation of First Nations kids in care have been known for decades.
“We knew it was poverty, we knew it was poor housing. We knew it was substance abuse related to multigenerational trauma from residential schools, and domestic violence. Those same things remain true today. So, when we see this prevention money go out the door, we need to really optimize the benefits of it by really targeting those issues. That is really going to be key to enhancing family well being and then also over the longer term, reducing the number of kids in care,” says Blackstock.
Blackstock credits the “spirits of the children in the unmarked graves who awakened Canadians” in a way she has not seen in her lifetime, for putting the pressure on the federal government to finally get a deal done.
The decades long battle has come with a personal toll for Blackstock who has been spied on by the federal government and seen funding cuts to the FNCFCS.
Blackstock says she would be lying if she didn’t admit it has been very difficult at times but adds she is not the victim in all of this.
Even if the $40 billion agreements are ratified, Blackstock says she will not be backing off on the fight for equality.
“My pledge is full equity across services and education and water and all of those things that affect kids, that’s still out there, we gotta land those things, too,” says Blackstock.
Watch the previous interview with Cindy.
Face to Face: Dennis Ward sits down with Cindy Blackstock