Day 6

Alanis Obomsawin documents Cindy Blackstock's fight for equality for Aboriginal children

Cindy Blackstock spent nine years fighting the federal government over under-funding Indigenous children. Legendary documentary maker Alanis Obomsawin watched her every step of the way — and made a film about it. They both join Brent in advance of the opening of "We Can't Make The Same Mistake Twice" at the Toronto International Film Festival.
A new documentary looks at Cindy Blackstock's 9-year battle to prove the federal government discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserves. (Canadian Press)

Canadian documentarian Alanis Obomsawin describes Cindy Blackstock as "the strongest person I've ever met."

The celebrated filmmaker's latest film is about Blackstock, and the fight she led against the Canadian government, alleging the federal government under-funds First Nations children living on-reserve. The NFB film, We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13th.

Blackstock first took her complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in February 2007. The case ended nine years later, on January 26, 2016, when the tribunal ruled that the federal government does discriminate against First Nations children.

Both Blackstock and Obomsawin spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about why it was important to share the story with a wider film audience.

"The government always said, 'look at all the money that we spent," explains Obomsawin. "So the public that hears this, they say look at all the money they're spending on Indigenous people and they're complaining."

Obomsawin goes on to tell a story from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearing, in which Blackstock describes a scenario in which an organization is paid to take care of 500 children, when in fact they have 690 children under their care.

"So this kind of stuff -- the public don't realize what that means," says Obomsawin. "All that is taking away all the human aspect of a life of a child."

How it began

When Blackstock was working as a social worker in British Columbia, she noticed the difference between services provided to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

Today, Blackstock is the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. In 2007, together with the Assembly of First Nations, Blackstock filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal alleging that First Nations children were being discriminated against through the under-funding of services provided to children living on reserves.

The federal government fought the case every step of the way, at one point having the complaint dismissed. But that decision was overturned, and the tribunal case dragged on, with a decision coming nine years after the complaint had originally been filed.

Never once in the nine years of this trial did they [the federal government] ever advance an argument about the best interest of the kids.- Cindy Blackstock

Blackstock says the many delays were frustrating.

"I think most listeners can understand that," says Blackstock. "It's a huge amount of time in a childhood, and what was so frustrating is that the legal technicalities that the federal government relied upon were all about fairness for the government. Never once in the nine years of this trial did they ever advance an argument about the best interest of the kids."

Snooping by the government

During the trial, Blackstock filed an Access to Information request for documents withheld by the federal government. It was through those documents that she learned the Canadian government had been gathering personal information about her.

Government officials had monitored Blackstock's Facebook page, took screen-shots and copied information that was then shared among government staff.

"They were trying to find 'other motives' so they could get the case thrown out on frivolous and vexatious grounds," explains Blackstock. "So they were looking for some other motive, personal issue or grudge that I might have, so they could bring that to the attention of the court and have it thrown out."

I just feel it's our job as adults to stand up for kids when something wrong is happening, and that's what I was doing.- Cindy Blackstock

Blackstock says that the 189 government staffers monitoring her activity found no other motive because there was no other motive.

"I just feel it's our job as adults to stand up for kids when something wrong is happening, and that's what I was doing," she says.

What has happened since the ruling?

Blackstock says she is still waiting for substantial change to take effect following the tribunal's ruling in January.

The tribunal issued a further compliance order due to the lack of action on the earlier ruling, and Blackstock expects another order to be issued this autumn.

"This pattern of the federal government using racial discrimination against children as a fiscal restraint measure continues, and I pray every day that the government will see the light and stop the practice. But it's going to take Canadians rising up and saying that we no longer want to be a country that pays for anything on the backs of kids," says Blackstock.

We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice

Obomsawin's documentary is called, We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice. She explains that it's meant to reflect the mistakes made by the Canadian government over many generations.

"Obviously, many people feel there's a repetition of the model of the residential schools in terms of removing the children," says Obomsawin.

One of the arguments in the case was that First Nations children were being unnecessarily removed from their homes because of a lack of services provided on reserve. A disproportionate number of Indigenous children are removed from their homes in comparison to non-Indigenous children.

Blackstock says Obomsawin is the perfect person to tell the story of the human rights case.

"She feels in her heart and soul the preciousness of children. And in many ways this is what the story is about. It's about 163,000 children right now who are living their lives in Canada, but are being told by the federal government that they're not worth the money," says Blackstock.

"I just think that her ability to tell that story, and for the public to see this story being told, not just through her lens, but to see the government witnesses themselves," explains Blackstock, "I'm hoping it really awakens the Canadian consciousness in ways that we've never seen before."

We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice premieres at TIFF on September 13th. It will screen at film festivals across the country over the next several months.