Reality of residential schools was always there for us to see: Cindy Blackstock

First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada director says it is time for Ottawa to act

Reality of residential schools was always there for us to see: Cindy Blackstock
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada

Cindy Blackstock says among the most frustrating aspects of reality for residential school survivors is knowing that the truth was always there for anyone to see. But those in a position of power to make decisions didn’t look.

“One of the things really important for people to understand is that the Canadian government has always known that there were prolific deaths amongst children and residential schools. And in fact, they could have prevented them.”

Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation in British Columbia, is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and a professor at McGill University. She has been one of the main drivers of the movement to challenge the inequitable provision of child and family services to First Nations. The human rights challenges she has fought for have resulted in hundreds of thousands of services being provided to First Nations children, youth and families.

Blackstock was born in 1964 in northern B.C. She didn’t go to a residential school but remembers being the only “Indian” kid in the class and wondering where others were. She only heard about residential schools decades later, at first faintly, then “more loudly” as survivors and their families spoke up.

While not a lawyer, she has a master’s degree in jurisprudence and children’s law and policy from Loyola University of Chicago. She also has a BA in psychology (University of British Columbia), a master’s degree in Management (McGill University), and a PhD in Social Work (University of Toronto).

The recent news of discovering hundreds of unmarked graves on former residential school sites dating back decades — 215 graves on the grounds of the school in Kamloops, B.C., and 715 at Marieval in Saskatchewan — was received with shock by the broader Canadian community. However, Blackstock points out many residential school survivors knew where many children were buried, as some of them had even dug their graves.

They told their story to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Blackstock says, and that commission presented 94 calls to action for ending the injustices facing this generation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, and to ensure such tragedy never happens again. While some paid attention to the testimony at the commission, Blackstock says many called them “exaggerated stories.”

Blackstock says many First Nations children sent to these schools could have been survived if Ottawa had listened to Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, chief medical health of the Department of Indian Affairs, in 1907. Bryce said tuberculosis was ravaging the malnourished residential school children at 20 times the rate of others, thanks to unequal funding for “Indians.”

Newspapers in 1907 wrote about the “absolute inattention to the bare necessities of health” and how children were “dying like flies.”  Such statements even prompted lawyer Samuel Hume Blake — one of the founders of law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP (Blakes today) — “unpleasant nearness to manslaughter.” Conditions were such that they contributed to death rates of at least 25 per cent a year.

Pretty strong words from Blake, Blackstock says. But while governments at the time didn’t dispute the fact that kids were dying, “they just didn’t think they were worth the money.”

Blackstock adds that while the question remains whether what happened was manslaughter, what is needed is an investigation into “not only individual criminal culpability, but whether the Canadian government itself was culpable.

“It’s not like the government was wielding a knife, but by not providing adequate conditions, it might as well have been.”

Blackstock says despite Ottawa’s public handwringing over past abuses against First Nations, governments still treat First Nations as second-class citizens — whether it is a broken child welfare system or the fact that many First Nations communities don’t have clean water and adequate housing.

“You don’t have a lot of boil water advisories for non-First Nations communities. Even the International Space Station has clean water.”

A century after Bryce’s report, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations in 2007 filed a human rights case against the federal government. In that complaint, the two organizations argued the government was falling short in distributing First Nations child and family services fairly and equitably.

They claimed the systematic underfunding of services for First Nations children directly links to the disproportionate number of children who are ripped from their homes and placed in foster care. According to figures from the federal government, more than half of the children in foster care are of Indigenous background, despite making up just over seven per cent of the under-14 population in Canada.

The conditions that cause so many Indigenous kids to land in the child welfare system are related to the legacies of residential schools, including poverty, addictions, and domestic and sexual violence.

The Canadian government has fought this complaint on legal technicalities. But in 2016, the CHRT ruled in the AFN and Caring Society’s favour. The CHRT ordered the government to stop the discrimination. In 2019, the CHRT awarded $40,000 to each First Nations child — and their parents and grandparents — inappropriately taken from their parents after 2006 due to the discriminatory application of child and family services rules.

Blackstock says the government “welcomed” the 2016 decision and then did not comply. Since then, the tribunal has been forced to issue 19 further orders and has linked Canada’s ongoing non-compliance to the unnecessary foster placements and the deaths of at least three children.

The government has filed for a judicial review to determine if the tribunal made a mistake and “overreached” its jurisdiction to order the compensation.

Ottawa likes to talk about residential schools as a horrible truth from the past, Blackstock says, but points out First Nations children are being separated from their families and placed in foster care at higher rates than in residential schools. There has been some improvement, thanks to the non-compliance orders, but Blackstock says the government’s old ways when it comes to First Nations are very much still ingrained.

At the heart of this tragedy, says Blackstock, is the need for the federal and other governments in Canada to be held accountable and learning from past conduct. Asked what accountability would look like, Blackstock answers: “It would be implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action,” and “to stop fighting First Nations kids in court.”

She points to a June news conference where federal ministers donned orange tee-shirts and ribbons when announcing that Ottawa had passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law. Blackstock says she was in a Federal Court courtroom that day, listening to federal lawyers try to overturn tribunal orders requiring it to compensate First Nations children and pay for services for children who live off-reserve and without Indian Act status.

What would be just, she says, is implementing the AFN’s “Spirit Bear” plan that calls on Canada to comply with all rulings by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on discriminatory funding of First Nations child and family services.

It also requires Canada to implement Jordan’s Principle, a child-first and needs-based principle used to ensure First Nations children living on and off-reserve have equitable access to all government-funded public services. Jordan refers to Jordan River Anderson, who died in a hospital in 2005 at age five, having never spent a day in a family home because Canada and Manitoba were fighting over payment for his at-home care due to him being First Nations.

The Spirit Bear plan also calls upon the Parliamentary Budget Officer to publicly cost out the shortfalls in all federally funded public services provided to First Nations children, youth and families (education, health, water, child welfare) and propose solutions.

As well, the Spirit Bear plan also recommends all public servants, including those at a senior level, to receive mandatory training to identify and address government ideology, policies and practices that fetter the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

 Says Blackstock: “If Ottawa were serious, these points would be a good start.”

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