Ending inequalities for First Nations children and young people

Monday, May 26, 2014

Liz Smith

Canada’s history is rooted in violent oppression. Our legacy of colonialism and ruthless intervention into the lives of First Nations people is not merely a distant memory, but one with continuing negative effects in contemporary society. On Sunday May 25th, Dr. Cindy Blackstock—Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada—drew in a full crowd of scholars and community members to the David S. Howes Theatre to address Canada’s shameful conduct that very often goes unrecognized. While we prefer to see Canada as a nation that upholds and practices principles of fairness, equity, and liberalism, in actuality our federal legislative policies have and continue to be responsible for keeping First Nations people disenfranchised and on the margins.

So what does this look like? Anyone who seeks a critical understanding about our nation’s history will know about the 1867 Indian Act introduced to eradicate Indian peoples and their ways of life, and of course the introduction of the Residential School System (whereby First Nations children were taken from their families under the guise that their welfare would be protected in sanctioned institutions, but in actuality became victims of institutionalized abuse and neglect in the hands of their ‘caregivers’). Today, our era of neo-colonialism carries forth even more disturbing realities affecting First Nations’ families, brought into light through Blackstock’s engaging narrative that contained an illuminating mix of personal stories and harrowing statistics.

To those that think we live in an equal society, consider this: “Although First Nations communities make up approximately 13% of all Canadian communities, 92% of the ‘bottom 100’ in 2001 were First Nations.” A more personal account of our systemic discriminatory regime came from the emotional story of Jordan River Anderson—a First Nations child, hospitalized since birth from a rare muscular disorder, died at age five because the federal and provincial government were in constant dispute about who was financially responsible for ensuring his continued care.

“We’re choosing this situation through complacency and public policy”, says Blackstock. “There’s no room in the Canadian law for children to be denied basic rights because of who they are”.

These systemic effects of neo-racism and neo-colonialism have far-reaching implications beyond how this ought to affect our moral conscience on a human level. If the Canadian government continues to uphold its oppressive federal policies, we will certainly experience its repercussions, with rising poverty, pervasive substance abuse, and domestic violence. In contrast, Blackstock maintains that equal societies will see its citizens live longer, be part of robust economies, have lower rates of mental illness, and be safe from the effects of prejudice and discrimination. Sounds great, but Canada has a ways to go.

In order to address these pervasive problems, we have to recognize our responsibility in acknowledging the multigenerational effects of settler colonialism, and hold our government accountable for its policies that maintain the subordination of First Nations people, in particular how it affects the next generation of children and youth. Indeed, First Nations children are leading the way in this accountability process in their ‘Letters to Canada’ as part of the I am a Witness Campaign. The crowd was particularly delighted when Blackstock recounted this child’s request: “Dear Prime Minister Harper, I think you need to go back to Grade 5 because that’s where you learn about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms”.

Crediting the line from Magnolia, Blackstock says “We may be through with the past, but the past may not be through with us”. Once we recognize this, does it then become possible to pursue progressive pathways, attempt to mend the macro-level root issues of the past that continue to plague us today, and move towards becoming the equitable society we claim to be. For more information, visit: and

To see the video recording of Cindy Blackstock’s presentation, click here.


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