As It Happens

Canada discriminates against children on reserves, tribunal rules

A ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal confirms Ottawa discriminates against First Nations children on reserve by failing to provide the same child welfare services that exist elsewhere.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde looks on as First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Caring Society's Cindy Blackstock speaks about the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on discrimination against First Nations children in care, during a news conference in Ottawa, on Jan. 26, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

It was a bitter fight over the welfare of indigenous children that lasted nearly a decade.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children living on reserve. In 2007, the complaint put to the tribunal was that indigenous children living on reserve do not receive the same level of child welfare services provided to children living elsewhere.

Cindy Blackstock is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. She led the battle against the government and spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the ruling. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Ms. Blackstock, what went through your mind when you first read the tribunal's ruling today?

Cindy Blackstock: I was overjoyed, for not only the 163,000 children, who for the first time will get the chance at a proper childhood, where they get as equitable service as other children, but also for the country. Whenever we make the best decision for children, the whole country wins.

CO: When you put this before the tribunal in 2007, was there any particular case, was there anything that you had seen or learned that sparked this for you?

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde embraces First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Caring Society Executive Director Cindy Blackstock. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

CB: I was a child protection worker off reserve in North Vancouver and then I went to work on reserve and this is just across the street in a metropolitan area. I was so shocked at the lack of services. These children were higher needs because of the residential schools. Things that I just took for granted off reserve just weren't funded. Just basic things. I found myself as a social worker taking on all kinds of jobs: fundraising for raffles to get children medical equipment. And so that's what started it.

CB: We worked with the federal government for ten years before we filed it. Documenting the inequalities, but more importantly, coming up with solutions they agreed with that could really help these kids, and they ignored it. So finally after seeing all these multiple harms for children — children being removed from their families unnecessarily, children being denied basic medical services and cultural services — I just felt that we had to take them to court. What followed was really nine very long years where the government tried to put legal technicalities before the best interests of the children.
I'm not giving up until the children see change on the ground — and I haven't seen that yet- Cindy Blackstock
CO: How does this compare with the story of the residential schools and the children that were taken from their homes? Is it comparable in any respect?

CB: Yes it is, and in fact, the tribunal draws that direct link. You know I've been honoured to attend, as many of us have, the Truth and Reconciliation, where we hear the survivors first hand stories about what it was like to be separated from their families. What it was like to not grow up with their culture. What it was like to lose their identities. I hear those same stories from youth and care today. Really what we're talking about here Carol, is giving these children the same opportunities as other children but in ways that honour their culture. That doesn't seem like a big ask to me and the sad thing is the government, over the years, has really used racial discrimination against these kids as a fiscal restraint policy but now's the chance for them to set it right and I hope the prime minister does.

CO: When you use the phrase "racial discrimination" that is exactly what the tribunal has called this?

CB: That's exactly what the tribunal has found. They found that these children receive less because of their race and national ethnic origin. That is the finding. One of the non-aboriginal girls I work with said: "Discrimination is when the government doesn't think you are worth the money." What the government historically has done, and continues to do, and hopefully will stop doing as of today, is telling First Nations children: "You're not worth the money."