After nine years of fighting Canada, social worker Cindy Blackstock has achieved a momentous victory with the potential to end ongoing injustices toward First Nations children by the federal government.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that the federal government has racially discriminated against 163,000 First Nations children on reserve by giving them significantly less funding for crucial welfare services than the rest of the population. Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFS), first launched the complaint to the tribunal with the Assembly of First Nations in 2007.
Afterward she told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that the federal government had kept her under surveillance. She faced stonewalling from its Aboriginal Affairs department at every turn, she said, as the government withheld documents and made multiple attempts to dismiss the complaint.
“It’s all been worth it,” Blackstock said tearfully at a news conference at the House of Commons after the decision was revealed on January 26. “But I need to see things happen for the kids. Change isn’t in a decision.”
The tribunal’s scathing 182-page written decision acknowledges that First Nations children on reserve get an estimated 22 to 34 percent less funding for child welfare services than the rest of the population despite having a higher need. This gap results in many adverse affects for kids and their families, including a huge number of children taken away from their homes for services and separated from their families and culture.
And far from “supporting culturally appropriate child and family services” that work in concert with provincial/territorial law, and that are comparable to those offered off-reserve children, the evidence showed that Aboriginal Affairs (the governmental department’s name at the time the complaint was filed) “is far from meeting these intended goals and, in fact, that First Nations are adversely impacted and, in some cases, denied adequate child welfare services by the application of the FNCFS Program and other funding methods,” the tribunal said in its ruling.
In fact, there are approximately three times the number of First Nations children in government care today than there were at the height of residential schools in the 1940s, according to the tribunal’s findings. Blackstock said it’s appalling that the case had to go to court at all.
“Isn’t that our job as adults, to stand up for kids?” she said. “I think that’s what I find the most shocking of all about this case. I’m a social worker. Why did we have to bring the government of Canada to court to treat First Nations kids fairly?”
The ruling was met with support from the federal government. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said they support the ruling and plan to work with aboriginal organizations and lower levels of government to improve the situation.
“We’re here today to say we’re going to act on this issue,” Bennett said at a separate press conference in Ottawa following the decision. “This is a very difficult issue that crosses on reserve and off reserve and we want a real system that will protect those children and keep families intact if at all possible.”
The Canadian Human Rights Commission also issued a statement welcoming the “historic” decision. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said change must happen right away, including within the upcoming federal budget.
“There is an opportunity now to fix the system and to make sure those needs are addressed appropriately,” he said. “To all those young children who have gone through that failed system in the last number of years, we want to assure them that they are not forgotten. We want to ensure, as well, that there are equal services on reserve because that is what this is about.”
Many other First Nations leaders and organizations from across Canada issued statements voicing their support for the ruling, including Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee, who called Blackstock a hero.
“The federal government has avoided the truth for many years,” he said. “Over 170 cases and millions and millions of dollars have been wasted fighting First Nations and getting beat every time. This is a great victory for our kids.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said the decision “signals the need for urgent, collective action to achieve equity across all federal services for First Nations children.”
Like Blackstock, he noted the nine-year timeline.
“Quite frankly, we are extremely annoyed and disgusted that it took a nine-year court case to recognize the glaringly obvious,” he said. “Racial discrimination against our children, or any children, is unlawful and completely intolerable.”
Blackstock said the legally binding ruling also applies to other inequities faced by First Nations children in education, health care and psychological services.
“Don’t you think that the one thing we can get from reconciliation right is raising a generation of First Nations children who don’t have to recover from their childhoods anymore?” she said. “I will not give up until [the government does] the right thing. At the end of the day, this is Canada needing to respond to its obligations toward little kids.”