"All these seeds we are planting now, and the federal government's doing it under the auspices of trying to save money, but it really is fool's gold what they're saving because the World Health Organization shows us that for every dollar a government spends on a child, they can expect to save up to $20 downstream in not having to pay for addiction services, mental health services, hospitals, prisons, those kind of things."
The following is a transcript from last year's episode of Upstream Radio, "Colonialism isn't behind us", featuring this interview with Cindy Blackstock and a roundtable discussion with Max Fineday and Janelle Pewapsconias.
Jared Knoll: Your message in April was such a thunderclap for so many people in our community who care about the social determinants of health and what makes everyone in Canada healthy. And we were also excited for the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that vindicated the institutional racism that you've been calling out for so long. You recently just have taken new action to set some new feet to the fire. What do you think about the response we've seen by the government since April?
Cindy Blackstock: When the Tribunal made the ruling in January, it really was historic in that the government of Canada was found to be racially discriminating against 163,000 children by providing inequitable services. And the order reads that they are immediately directed to remedy the discrimination. Now, the Tribunal held on to jurisdiction because it wanted to ensure that the federal government implemented the order. And so it would ask for regular compliance reports from the government, and being unsatisfied with those reports as of April, it issued a further compliance order against the federal government, saying to the federal government very clearly that, "We didn't order you to discuss eliminating the discrimination.
We ordered you to take action to eliminate the discrimination." And they asked for further confirmation from the federal government a compliance. When the federal government's reports again were unsatisfactory, on September 16th, the Tribunal issued a further compliance order against the federal government for failing to comply with the January order and refined its judgement to be very specific about what the government needs to do.
"Very few Canadians are really turning their attention to what is our civil rights movement, our Confederate flag in Canada."
And in particular, on Jordan's Principle, which is about ensuring that First Nations children can access public services on the same level as other children. Even since that September ruling has come down, we've seen correspondence from Health Canada where they are promoting a definition of Jordan's Principle that's clearly in violation of the rulings. And we have written, or I have written, to the Minister of Health to draw that to her attention and urged her to bring it into compliance. So really, what the pattern overall has been, is that the government has not. In my view, disrespecting the Tribunal's orders. They are acting in their own discretion. They are not complying with the law and, as result, the discrimination continues against these kids.
JK: How does that match up with how much weight our leadership says they put on reconciliation and real change for the health outcomes and the realities faced by indigenous communities as a policy priority?
CB: I think it's in direct contradiction of that, and I think it's a good reminder of people that nice words don't eliminate racial discrimination, in fact, they can mask it. And what we need to see is real action on the ground. And it's important for people to understand that the government has a solution. The First Nations have been very clear about what the solutions are. The Tribunal has been very clear in its orders about what Canada needs to do. It's not because Canada doesn't know how to do it, it's because Canada is consciously choosing not to do it.
JK: And what do you hope to achieve by calling out for them to be held in contempt? What's your optimistic, best case scenario?
CB: Well, I think that, unfortunately, if they are held in contempt, I think that hopefully that will awaken the Canadian consciousness in a stronger way. And it will also further compel the government as a whole, and the Prime Minister in particular, to ensure that his government complies with the law.
JK: With the Canadian consciousness, have you seen a waking up of a lot of people in the public to these issues that wasn't there before?
CB: I would say if we were to compare it to waking a heavy sleeper in the morning... they're starting to turn over. But it has not grabbed the Canadian imagination to the extent that matches the gravity of the harm that we're talking about here. Just to give you an example, in January 26 when the order came down, it was covered very well in the national media for a couple of days and then it went silent again. It was replaced by comments in the media about heckling in Parliament. Even with the latest compliance order where the federal government is found to be breaking the law on the three orders, failing to comply with three legal orders.
And let's face it Jared, if you or I failed to comply with three legal orders, we would be wearing orange jumpsuits by now. The federal government failing to comply with three legal orders and discrimination, racial discrimination against children, was covered just in a blip on the national media. And very few Canadians are really turning their attention to what is our civil rights movement, our Confederate flag in Canada.
Indigenous children have vastly higher rates of child poverty than non-Indigenous children in Canada (CCPA)
JK: It is amazing that you even had to go to the court in the first place for these issues that... If these were another issue that was less normalized, people would have their minds blown by that fact and we're all so just okay with that.
CB: Absolutely, absolutely. I say that all the time. And in fact, when I hear people describe me as an activist, I bristle a bit about that because really, why would we give someone who is simply saying that First Nations children need to be treated equitably, why does it take an activist to say that? Why does that cause even need to be championed? It should be an absolute given in this society. And it just signifies to me how deep the racial discrimination is, and how normalized it is in this country.
JK: Is there a linkage between that normalization of discrimination and the continuation of decolonization? We talk a lot of nice words about reconciliation and truth, but can we even begin to get toward reconciliation? Can we even take the first baby steps before we address decolonization?
CB: Well, to me, reconciliation is about not saying sorry twice. And it's very difficult to really authentically move to a place of reconciliation when the harm is ongoing. It's like if you were bullying somebody, and you continue to bully them, and you say, "Now I'd like to talk about peace," and then you give 'em another shove. That doesn't work very well. And that's why we really need the federal government to comply with these legal orders, to show it's serious about taking action to remedy this racial discrimination against children, and to stop making excuses for it.
What is so troubling for me is throughout the 10 years of this case, it'll be 10 years in February, the federal government's response to the legal findings and the documents, and even its own documents that show that it's discriminating against these children, has always been to protect themselves. They have always talked about, "Well, we're taking good first steps," and "Look at all the stuff we're doing."
"Do you really wanna pay for that birthday party next year by subsidizing it through racial discrimination against little kids?"
But I don't know about you, I did child protection work on the frontlines for many years, and when I found families who were doing something that harmed their children, their first reflex normally wasn't to talk about all the good things they were doing. It was about, "What can I do to remedy that harm? What can I do to make sure this child is safe, and all other children are safe?" And I find that just... It shocks me that the government really doesn't put these kids at the front of the discourse. It's not about patting themselves on the back for racially discriminating against kids. It's about putting these children first and keeping your eye on the ball and eliminating that discrimination.
JK: Without having hard data to draw on, in your estimation, what sort of long-term mental health, physical health, what sort of health impacts do you see that we're causing every week or every month that we wait on this stuff?
CB: It's not even every week, it's every moment. We're talking about child development here, and as you know, and particularly in the first 2,000 days of life, that's really when the biological parts of our body are getting wired up in certain ways that will have significant impacts on our well-being throughout the rest of our course of our life.
So if we think about the ACE study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study that shows that children with adverse experiences, particularly those who have experienced four to five of those, are at increased risk for things like mental health issues, or at increased risk for substance misuse, or at increased risk for the experience of violence throughout their lifetime. They're at increased risk for things like cardiac disease and diabetes.
And all these seeds we are planting now, and the federal government's doing it under the auspices of trying to save money, but it really is fool's gold what they're saving because the World Health Organization shows us that for every dollar a government spends on a child, they can expect to save up to $20 downstream in not having to pay for addiction services, mental health services, hospitals, prisons, those kind of things.
JK: Is that something that you'd like to see talked more about in terms of saving money for taxpayers? Is it depressing but also at least something we can do to get people connected in that way, at least for their own selfish pocket book reasons?
CB: I think that that's a bit of the narrative, but I think the more important point is to say to Canadians, "Do you really wanna pay for that birthday party next year by subsidizing it through racial discrimination against little kids?" Those are the posters we really should be putting up, and wherever we see a new tennis court going up, or a new flag pole being erected, or the renovations in Parliament, we should be saying, "This is being paid for my racial discrimination against children." When we have to make economic arguments, we've already crossed the bridge that somehow this is okay.
"Governments aren't illogical or immoral. They've always known about this racial discrimination against children. They have consciously chosen to continue to perpetrate it."
And I say to the federal government, "That's nonsense." And people have also said to me, "Well, Cindy, when it comes to people, governments only think in four-year cycles, and therefore they're not really aware. They don't really wanna spend money now for something that might happen when they're not in power." But they have a totally different perspective on that when it comes to things like pipelines.
Governments are willing to throw buckets of money into those kinds of things after the four-year election cycle. But when it comes to actually eliminating racism for kids, somehow this becomes an excuse and a legitimate area of discourse. And I think what we need to do is delegitimize these excuses of racism, and make it very uncomfortable for people to... But force them to face that that's what's happening.
JK: What do you think the first steps are for that? They're done with the first steps, with the next steps, but the next things that we haven't been doing that you think you have optimism could actually get people engaged in that kind of way?
CB: I think that we have to call it racial discrimination against children. I don't think it's enough to call it inequity. It is, of course, an inequity, but it is made possible by state-based racial discrimination. And the racial discrimination that First Nations peoples experience is not the same type of discrimination that we hear more broadly about in society where persons are being denied opportunities or being disparaged in public for their sexual orientation, or for their religious beliefs, or for their color of their skin. This goes much deeper than this.
This is actually statutory and fiscal racism against a particular group of people by the government of Canada. And so we need to frame it that way because that, in fact, is what it is. And we also need to, again, as I say, be very cautious about expecting that by entering into... I guess, the areas of discovery around, for example, the cost of racism in society, that somehow that's gonna convince people who are perpetrating it to change.
Governments aren't illogical or immoral. They've always known about this racial discrimination against children. They have consciously chosen to continue to perpetrate it. I think that's the piece that, if we continue along with research, we're assuming that the government, if it only had this argument and this evidence, it would actually change. I don't think it will.
"Reconciliation is about not saying sorry twice."
That's why our focus needs to be on the Canadian public. Very much like if we were to put ourselves back into Mississippi in the 1960s, having tea with the sheriff's office and with the government and putting forward the very legitimate arguments about the oppression of African-American people would not have yielded you very much, even no matter how convincing your studies were. And we have the same thing happening here.
So we need to take the same approach, which is going out and talking to people, Canadians, and confronting their stereotypes and saying, "Look, if you don't want Donald Trump to be president of the United States because he holds racist views, then you are obligated to tackle the racism that's happening in our country".
JK: Do you think that there's a disconnect then between the national pride that so many feel to be Canadian, and what our leadership and what our policies actually do? That American football player that took a knee during the national anthem... Do we need to see more people taking a knee in Canada for checking our own national pride?
CB: Yeah. To me, patriotism has come to mean a blind subordination to leaders, and that's not what the best of patriotism means to me. I actually don't believe in a government, so to speak, any political party, or any political leaders at the moment. I really believe in the values of the country that they're supposed to define as the most, so things like fairness and justice. I view it as my responsibility and the responsibility of other citizens, when you see governments acting contrary to what we feel emotes that sense of pride in ourselves, the sense of respect for human rights, if we see governments acting contrary to that, it is our duty and our obligation to do what needs to be done to bring that back into compliance.
"We have to call it racial discrimination against children. I don't think it's enough to call it inequity."
And Canadians need to wake up to the issue that if we look back at Canadian history, this last 149 years, the most egregious human rights violations have all been perpetrated by the government. The interment of Japanese-Canadians, the Chinese head tax, the residential school fiasco, the sterilization of persons with disabilities, the running of scientific so-called "experiments" on vulnerable populations including indigenous peoples, and the ongoing inequality and racial discrimination in Canada's current policies towards First Nations. And so they've all happened at the hands of the federal government, and the provincial governments, and they've all been made possible because we, as people in this country, have not learned how to stand on guard like the national anthem calls us to do.
JK: Do you have optimism when we've seen the United Nations call out Canada for human rights violations, like half a dozen times in the last couple of years... Do you have an optimism that there's any voice that Canadians will listen to if they won't listen to them?
CB: I think that what we need to have in Canada, and I think there's a growing number thanks to the survivors of residential school, the TRC, that hopefully work with the Tribunal and many others, and the murder of missing indigenous women... I think people are starting to wake up, but we're not there yet. And that's why it's so critical that we continue to deliver a very clear message to Canadians, that the federal government is racially discriminating against children. There is no excuse for it.
It needs to stop and you need to be part of that process to make it stop, and that would be the greatest gift to this country for the 150th birthday. I don't need a piece of cake and a maple leaf painted on my face. What I want to see for this country as a sincere gift is that we stop this racial discrimination against First Nations peoples, against Métis and Inuit peoples, and that the next 150 years is the resetting of that relationship.
"We're not in a post-colonial period."
JK: Well, we've got a little bit of time left, but I share your cautious optimism that that's possible. It's a good benchmark for us to hit, 150 years, to finally live up to the values that we've been saying we have all this time.
CB: Yeah. It's a little hollow for us to be out there preaching to China. I have to... Just as a sidebar, having been under surveillance by the Canadian government for having brought this case, and I hear people all up in arms about how much the Chinese government monitors its citizens. I actually went to China during the time when I was under surveillance and people said, "Whoa! Wow! Aren't you even more nervous 'cause the Chinese do all this surveillance?" And I said, "No. At least they're honest about it."
You know going in there exactly what you're up against, but here there's this whole illusion of freedom of speech, of freedom of movement, of democracy, and the government, in my case at least, launched its suppression under that cloak, that benevolent cloak. And that benevolent cloak has always masked the discrimination that First Nations children face. We even see it today.
"They've all been made possible because we, as people in this country, have not learned how to stand on guard like the national anthem calls us to do."
"We're making good first steps," all the rest of that nonsense as re-framing it as, "We are good people. You should feel sympathetic to us. Don't look over here at the 163,000 kids who are suffering and some are dying because of the conditions that the racial discrimination places them in."
JK: We're proud and honored to have you taking the lead on pulling back that benevolent cloak, Cindy. I've just got one last question for you — and I'm going to try to set up a round table discussion to discuss some of this stuff further: how would you define or frame the state of colonization in Canada today?
CB: It's ongoing. We're not in a post-colonial period. I did a talk yesterday on Parliament Hill and I talked about the whole notion that the people of the period, in this... As Canada reflects back on residential school, there's a sense that people didn't know any better back then. I heard that on Sir John A. Macdonald's birthday, too. Well, he was just representative of the values of the day. Had he known better, he would've done better.
We are the people of this period. There are three legal orders saying that our federal government is racially discriminating against 163,000 kids. We know better, so what are we gonna do about it? In what ways are we going to differentiate ourselves from those people that we cloaked as ignorant in the past? Because we can't take that shield. It's not there for us. We know, the government knows, and we're choosing to allow it to continue to happen.
"Just go home to your own kids. Imagine if the government today decided they weren't worth the money. Not only that they weren't worth the money, but they might have to wait and see their children not be worth the money and their children not be worth the money. And over time... How comfortable would you be with that?"
JK: I have no doubt that with the passion that you bring to the conversation, Cindy, it's inevitable that eventually we're going to see Canadians waking up fully to this incredibly important issue for us.
CB: Well, I really hope so and I really value the work of Upstream. One of the difficulties I've had in the equity movement is this idea that there's... I love Justice Frankfurter's notion that "there's no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals."
So there is the general statements of equity without understanding that the depth and the gravity of that racial discrimination is very different for First Nations peoples and cannot be viewed on the same terms as other types of discrimination. That's not to legitimize those other forms of discrimination, but it is to say that you need to recognize that this is one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time.
JK: And for the economic and health and democratic future of Canada, I balk to think of a greater challenge or a more urgent challenge, or a more important challenge.
CB: Yeah, and just go... for people reading the article or listening to the tape, just go home to your own kids. Imagine if the government today decided they weren't worth the money. Not only that they weren't worth the money, but they might have to wait and see their children not be worth the money and their children not be worth the money. And over time... How comfortable would you be with that? These people who should defend and support incremental equality are those who are already being treated equally.
JK: Do you ever feel like... Does it ever feel just surreal for you, how you see these disconnects?
CB: It does.
JK: Like you're living in a crazy dream scenario?
"This is one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time."
CB: [Laughter]. Well, years ago, I wrote this phrase and I distanced myself from it for a while just in terms of not using it very much, but it's coming into sharp focus for me now. I called it "screaming into silence," and that's often how it feels, is I see these children, I see the harms that they're doing, I see that it's preventable, I see that it's contrary to everything that the country stands for, and I scream out, and other people do too, but it just dissipates and gets replaced by things like elbow gate and moving expenses.
JK: Yeah, we do like our distractions.
CB: We do like our distractions. They're comfortable for us, but they do nothing for the children who are suffering so deeply.
Click here for more Upstream stories around Indigenous (in)justice.
To learn more about the HRTC rulings and the First Nations Caring Society, visit their website.
To find out what you can do, visit fnwitness.ca.
To see Cindy speak at Closing the Gap: Action for Health Equity, click the video below.
To hear this interview, or listen to the round-table discussion with Max Fineday and Janelle Pewapsconias, click the embedded links below.
Cindy Blackstock is a Canadian-born Gitxsan activist for child welfare, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Social Work professor at McGill University, and indefatigable upstream thinker and ally.