Indigenous children’s rights activist and Dalhousie’s 2022 Shaar Shalom keynote speaker, Cindy Blackstock (LLD’18), says adults need to trust children with the truth. “They can handle it,” Dr. Blackstock says, even when the truth is uncomfortable or horrifying.
She’s referring to the grim facts about Indigenous children’s mistreatment at Canada’s residential schools, in foster care and systemically.
Dr. Blackstock is executive director of The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. She’s also a professor at McGill University’s School of Social Work. Her many recognitions include an honorary doctorate from Dalhousie. She has published more than 75 articles on topics relating to reconciliation, Indigenous theory, and First Nations child welfare and human rights.
With over 30 years experience working in this field, the discovery of more than a thousand bodies in unmarked graves at residential schools in 2021 was no surprise to Dr. Blackstock, who is a member of the Gitxsan First Nation. It did, however, shock a lot of non-Indigenous Canadians who, says Dr. Blackstock, have been subjected to a form of thought-control that prevented them, until that moment, from deeply considering the injustices Indigenous Canadians have faced.
But children, she says, are quicker to accept and react. “They’re way out ahead of adults,” says Dr. Blackstock. Since 2012 she has been reading the letters children send to their members of parliament, asking government to do better for Indigenous children. The letters, she says, are invariably signed ‘Love, [child’s name]’.
“They [children] base a social movement on love. They remind us how you defeat anger and injustice in society,” says Dr. Blackstock.
Lecture title invokes the past and systemic denials
Blackstock’s March 3 lecture at Dal is titled Spirit Bear: Echoes of the Past.
She says it references the myths we tell ourselves to justify our actions, such as, ‘We didn’t know.’
“We hear a lot about residential schools. But phrases like ‘it was a dark chapter’ (in Canadian history) don’t help us nor credit the spirits of children in those unmarked graves.” The contemporary injustices (facing Indigenous people) are a deliberate choice by governments, not a failure, says Blackstock. She goes on to ask, “Can we break the pattern? Can we hold our focus long enough to hold government to account?”
Dr. Blackstock references Peter Henderson Bryce (1853-1932) who wrote the book The Story of a National Crime about needless deaths in residential schools. He was the first Chief Medical Officer of the Department of the Interior in 1904 around 20 years after Sir John A. MacDonald made First Nations children official wards of the state. In 1907, Dr. Bryce released a report that showed roughly one-quarter of all Indigenous children attending residential schools had died preventable deaths from tuberculosis. Dr. Bryce called for a major overhaul, lamenting Canadians’ indifference to the medical wellness of First Nations children and underscoring the extent to which the mass apprehension of Indigenous children was not merely cultural but biological genocide.
Government chose not to act, says Dr. Blackstock. “The story died out and so did the children,” she says. “We missed all these opportunities and continue missing them right up to today. Now, we have an opportunity to disrupt those patterns of thought control and colonialism. Canadian citizens have shown their own power. They’re paying attention. They’re asking questions.”
In her upcoming lecture at Dalhousie, Dr. Blackstock will draw on local examples, including the lobster dispute between Sipekne’katik Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in Digby and Yarmouth counties. The RCMP were slow to rise to that occasion and used an uneven hand when reacting to it, she says.
‘We loved you enough to stand up for you’
For the past 15 years, Dr. Blackstock has been working on a successful human rights challenge to Canada’s inequitable provision of child and family services, and failure to implement Jordan’s Principle (which aims to eliminate service inequities and delays for First Nations children). A ruling announced in January 2022 requires the federal government to pay $40 billion in child welfare. It will compensate Indigenous children and their families harmed by an underfunded child welfare system and establish long-term reform. Half the money will support young First Nations adults transitioning out of the child welfare system and bolster preventive mechanisms to keep children at home and in their communities.
It’s been hard-fought litigation and the fight isn’t over yet. The government has thus far appealed every stage of the ruling. Dr. Blackstock is waiting to celebrate, she says, until Canada drops its latest appeal. “The government has a long history of making benevolent statements,” she says, mentioning they’ve announced the compensation package but have not begun paying it out. (That’s expected to begin in April 2022.)
When asked what propels her, Dr. Blackstock says the answer is easy: children.
“What keeps me going is the honour and dignity of standing with children and their families. I ask myself what, at the end of the day, is really important to me? Every one of these kids is more important than my job. I want to be able to say we loved you enough to stand up for you.”
The Shaar Shalom Lecture at Dalhousie University is made possible through the generosity of the Shaar Shalom Synagogue of Halifax. It seeks to explore themes of tolerance, multiculturalism, diversity and difference in contemporary society, and demonstrates our shared interest in bringing in-depth discussion of these themes to wider civil society. This year’s lecture happens Thursday, March 3, 2022 at 7 p.m. (AST). Find more information and a link to the registration page here.
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