Distinguished speaker Cindy Blackstock discusses inequalities for First Nations children

‘I really believe in children,’ says Dr. Blackstock

Blackstock addressed inequalities facing First Nations children.
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In 1999, Jordan River Anderson of Norway Cree House Nation was born in a Manitoba hospital. 
 
Five years later, he slipped into a coma and died there. 
 
On Mar. 28, Dr. Cindy Blackstock—member of the Gitksan First Nation and Executive Director of Canada’s First Nations Child and Family Caring Society—spoke about Anderson’s death as part of Queen’s Distinguished Speaker series.
 
Anderson was born with complicated health issues, but he stayed in the hospital until he died because the provincial and federal government couldn’t decide who’d pay for his in-home care expenses.
 
“It was, like, let this little guy grow up in a family,” Blackstock said. “But it was like screaming into silence.”
 
She added Anderson’s older sister believes he died of a broken heart.
 
“Other little boys would come into the hospital not feeling very well. They would get better and were able to leave,” Blackstock said. “But [Anderson] was better, and he was still trapped there because he was a First Nations child.” 
 
Following his death, the Caring Society worked with Anderson’s family to create Jordan’s Principle, which aims to ensure First Nations children have equal access to public services compared to other children in Canada. 
 
“Very simple,” Blackstock said. “When a First Nations child needs a public service, they should get it. You can figure out all the rest of the stuff later.”
 
Blackstock spoke, however, about the Caring Society’s difficulty in gaining the Canadian government’s approval of Jordan’s Principle.
 
In 2007, the Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a human rights case against Canada for its failure to provide equitable child welfare funding and to honour Jordan’s Principle.
 
Within 30 days of filing that case, they lost all their federal funding, leaving them with only $50,000 in the bank.
 
“We had just launched a legal case against the biggest law firm in Canada, but surprisingly, we didn’t die,” she said. 
 
The Canadian government brought eight motions over six years to try to get the case dismissed.
 
In 2016, however, the Tribunal ruled the Canadian government was discriminating against First Nations children in its failure to honour Jordan’s Principle.
 
“It’s the only example in the western world where a nation state has been held accountable for its current discriminatory treatment of a generation of children and ordered by its own courts to stop,” Blackstock said. 
 
But according to Blackstock, the 2016 victory wasn’t the case’s turning point.
 
She described how, for the case’s first few years, the courtrooms were empty, and she could “hear the echo” of her own voice.
 
“But that all changed in 2009,” she said, when a group of high school students began coming to the case’s court dates wearing ‘I am a witness’ t-shirts.
 
“By 2012 there were so many children coming to the courtrooms that we had to book them in shifts,” Blackstock said. “They weren’t just there to watch and learn, they were there to be heard.”
 
Canada failed its appeal, and while Blackstock said the government has made some improvements, the Caring Society has filed seven non-compliance orders since 2016. 
 
Blackstock pointed to the government’s recent $1.2 billion investment into Jordan’s Principle as a good step forward but emphasized that funding was a result of the efforts of First Nations children and Anderson’s family. 
 
According to Blackstock, there are more First Nation’s children in child welfare care today than there was at the height of residential schools by a factor of three. 
 
“I really believe in children,” she said. “It is no longer morally tenable as a human race to say to one child that you get less because of who you are.” 
 

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