A Gitxan advocate who challenged the federal government's treatment of First Nations children received a standing ovation on Friday when she accepted an honorary degree from the University of Winnipeg.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, was awarded an honorary doctor of laws at the university's spring convocation.

She dedicated the honorary degree to a First Nations boy from Manitoba, Jordan River Anderson, who died in 2005 in a Winnipeg hospital, while the federal and provincial governments argued over who would pay for his home care.

"One very special little boy named Jordan River Anderson was one of those children who I owe my life's work to," she told the graduates.

Discrimination against children

Jordan's Principle — named for Anderson — stipulates that no Indigenous child should suffer denials, delays or disruptions of health services available to other children due to jurisdictional disputes. It was unanimously adopted by Parliament in 2007.

Jordan Anderson

Jordan Anderson, seen here in a 2003 image from video, died in 2005 at the age of four while the federal and provincial governments argued over who should pay for his care. (Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs)

But that same year, Blackstock, along with the Assembly of First Nations, filed a complaint against Ottawa with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, arguing that the federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child-welfare services that exist elsewhere.

In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed. It said the government's funding model and management of its First Nations child and family services "resulted in denials of services and created various adverse impacts for many First Nations children and families living on reserves."

"We're inching our way forward but we're not there yet," Blackstock said at the convocation ceremony, which included many future educators.

"It will take all of us, every single one of us in this room."

​Professor, advocate

A member of the Gitxan First Nation, Blackstock holds a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of British Columbia, a master's degree in management from McGill University and a master's degree in jurisprudence in children's law and policy from Loyola University in Chicago, and a PhD in social work from the University of Toronto.

Aside from her role as executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, she's a professor in the School of Social Work at McGill and a commissioner for the Pan American Health Organization's Commission on Equity and Health Inequalities, which is part of the United Nations.