Bear Witness Day brings awareness to Jordan's Principle
Society urges Canadians to snap photos of teddy bears and post them to social media
Spirit Bear is not a household name, but he has become the symbol of Jordan's Principle, a child's-first principle meant to ensure that First Nation children receive the health care they need without delays.
He is a small teddy bear who can often be seen posing alongside children's advocate Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
Spirit Bear will be no doubt posing for a few more photographs on Wednesday as part of Bear Witness Day, a social media campaign created by the society.
It's asking Canadians to snap photographs of their childhood teddy bears and post them to social media with the hashtags #JordansPrinciple and #Waiting4UCanada. It's also encouraging people to bring their teddy bears to work or school to spread awareness of Jordan's Principle.
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The day marks an important milestone for the Caring Society — May 10, 2016, was the deadline given to the federal government to implement Jordan's Principle in full.
But, as Blackstock notes, one year has passed and the principle has not been fully implemented.
'Bear witness' to tribunal
Beyond posing for photos, Spirit Bear has served an important role in the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearings on Jordan's Principle, which was launched after Blackstock and the society filed a complaint in 2007.
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"Spirit Bear … was gifted to me by Carrier Sekani Tribal Council just before the hearings started," Blackstock recalled.
"I thought we need something in the hearing room to remind us all who this is about — it's about real children and their families."
Blackstock decided to bring Spirit Bear to all the tribunal hearings so he could "bear witness" to the stories of First Nation children who have been impacted by poor access to health services.
"For the last 10 years [Spirit Bear] has been to all the hearings, and children at the hearings … would tell him their stories, and they would also dress him up," said Blackstock.
"He has a ribbon shirt, a TRC pin given to him by Senator [Murray] Sinclair, and some Hudson Bay trading beads given to him by Alanis Obomsawin. That bear is better dressed than I am."
The reason Spirit Bear was chosen to symbolize First Nation children at the tribunal hearings is because a teddy bear was the favourite toy of Jordan River Anderson, the young boy from Norway House, Man., the principle is named after.
Anderson died in 2005 in a Winnipeg hospital, while the federal and provincial governments argued over who would pay for his home care.
After the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the federal government in 2016 to fully implement Jordan's Principle, Blackstock says the organization received two more teddy bears.
There's Cedar, a brown teddy bear who wears a cedar hat, and Memengawe, a white teddy bear whose name means "butterfly" in Algonquin.
Blackstock said Memengawe's name was chosen by students from Pierre Elliott Trudeau School in Gatineau, Que., who worked with an elder to learn about naming ceremonies. They held a feast for the bear and even designed the regalia that Memengawe now wears.
"These bears are our ambassadors to spread the word about how important it is that First Nation children grow up with their families, get a good education, be healthy and proud of who they are," said Blackstock.
Fun way to support the cause
This is only the second year of the teddy bear social media campaign, but Blackstock hopes Canadians will take time to "bear witness" to Jordan's Principle.
"It's free and it's fun and it gives adults a chance to bring out that old teddy bear that they used to love and now have stored away in a closet somewhere," she said.
"People can support [the cause] … by writing their elected officials and saying, "2017 is the year that [Jordan's Principle] needs to be implemented.'"