OHSWEKEN – Dr. Cindy Blackstock was at Six Nations Polytechnic on Friday, speaking to a crowd of about 200 people on the work being done to end funding disparities and discrimination toward on-reserve indigenous children and their families.
Blackstock worked with the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society to file a 2007 complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act against Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. She says the case is “the biggest human rights case against the Canadian Government in history.”
The case, which was heard over 72 days from 2013-2014, was presented to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. It accused the federal government of racially discriminating against First Nations children on-reserve by providing ‘flawed and inequitable child welfare’ and denying First Nations children the opportunity to grow up with their families in their own communities.
Support for the case was issued by a number of agencies including the Chiefs of Ontario, the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, UNICEF and Amnesty International – all taking a collective stand to demand the government of Canada end disparities for First Nations children.
Blackstock said that for decades federal politicians in Ottawa have short-changed provisions for First Nations children treating them as if they “weren’t worth the money.”
Evidence presented during her lecture illustrated the double standard for child welfare in Canada. While provincial laws and standards apply both on and off reserve – care on reserve is funded federally and at a rate 22% less than organizations off-reserve receive.
Blackstock says this is one of the facts brought forth in the human rights case. “Discrimination is when the government doesn’t think you’re worth the money,” she said. “What does it feel like for a child who is told they are not worth the money because of who they are?”
Throughout her lecture Blackstock shared evidence presented to the Tribunal. She said, “This forum is really important because never before have you been able to get an un-spun peek behind the government curtain.”
All of the evidence can be seen online at www.fnwitness.ca as a part of the ‘I am a Witness’ campaign – which the Caring Society established to educate the public on the complexities of this case and decide for themselves if First Nations children are being treated fairly.
One of the most powerful pieces of evidence shared was an early letter from notorious former Superintendent of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott – giving permission for Indian Agents to remove First Nations children from their families.
“The warrant had a second provision that allowed for the removal of First Nations children because they ‘were not properly cared for’,” Blackstock said. “This is the earliest document I know of for child welfare in Canada.”
First Nations children are overrepresented in Canadian child welfare statistics. Despite making up only 3% of the Canadian population, First Nations children make up to 40% of the child welfare cases in Canada.
Blackstock said this is not because of a cultural tendency toward dysfunction, but rather because of disparities in social support towards dealing with on-reserve poverty, poor housing and substance abuse.
“There are many words you can use to explain the over representation of First Nations children in care,” said Blackstock. “…but unavoidable is not one of them. We simply have to allow for good community responses that target those factors and we could have a lot more of our children home. But in order to do that we need to have an equitable opportunity to care for them.”
Instead of making investments into First Nations communities to correct those disparities, Blackstock says the federal government has a habit of re-allocating funds already within the budget as a band-aid type solution to the problem.
This kind of behavior, Blackstock said, combined with photo opportunity type announcements releasing ‘millions in funding to First Nations communities’ has created an atmosphere of jealousy amongst Canadians, and is “…raising a generation of non-aboriginal Canadians who judge [First Nations people] as if they got more. That’s a society that we need to work our way out of.”
According to Blackstock there is a great injustice going on behind the scenes in Ottawa that Canadians deserve to understand. “You know there is so much good will out there,” said Blackstock. “So many caring Canadians who I think would stand with us if they knew this better. But they simply have not understood why these inequalities are there and how deep they are.”
And it doesn’t seem like the federal government is keen on releasing the facts around those inequalities. The Canadian federal government spent nearly $3 million to stop the case, saying it was unfair to compare federal funding to provincial funding and that any discrimination was not due to disparities in federal funding but rather came from the agencies providing services.
Both of those arguments were dismissed by the Tribunal and hearings began in 2013.
“For the first six years of this case the Canadian government tried to derail it with legal technicalities before the facts could ever be heard. And that I think itself is quite telling,” said Blackstock. “Because if I was accused of racially discriminating and had nothing to hide I’d want the hearing read; but that is not what we found with the government of Canada.”
Blackstock said the Tribunal has the authority to not only find the federal government guilty of discriminating against First Nations children, but can also order them to fix it.
“We will do whatever it takes to make sure this discrimination stops because your kids and everyone else’s kids are worth the money,” said Blackstock. “We are at this moment of history where we are on the brink of being able to create a better Canada, a better country and a better situation for First Nations children. But it’s going to take every single one of us to make sure that this becomes real.”
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal heard closing argument in October of 2014 and is expected to present a ruling on this case sometime in the spring of 2015.
For more information go to www.fnwitness.ca for details on the case and video of the tribunals.