“When the headlines die, the kids die”: An Interview with Cindy Blackstock About Protecting Indigenous Children
Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, has dedicated her life to fighting for the wellbeing and welfare of Indigenous children. Her work has exposed discriminatory and systematically racist government practices that have devastated Indigenous youth, families, and communities for generations.
While she and her organization, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (F.N. Caring Society for short), have won numerous court victories and secured billions of dollars in new public service funding, there is still much work to be done and much injustice to overcome. We’re honored that she took the time to talk to us.
Can you tell us a little of your story and how you first got involved in this work?
I was born in 1964 and grew up in the bush of northern British Columbia at a time when residential schools were still around me. I didn't know they were there because I was in the bush and not in a community, but I noticed there weren't a lot of kids in the community when I would go visit. I was a curious and very social kid, so I was always watching the news—we got the news in black and white back then. I know I'm dating myself seriously with that! But I remember seeing what I thought, as a five-year-old, were ghosts doing bad things to people in the United States—and it turned out the ghosts were the Ku Klux Klan.
I asked my mother, I was just five and it was confusing, "Well, what did the people do wrong? Why are these people so mad? What's going on?" My mom made it very clear that the people who were victimized had done nothing wrong. When we would go into the town, I would ask people about this, because I was always a talker. I'd talk people's ears off. And I remember that most people in the town agreed that it was terrible what was happening down there. But these were the same people who would also say that Indians like me were going to grow up to be drunk and on welfare. I felt encircled by that injustice—I had bigger dreams for myself than this! I just couldn't square how these people who could otherwise see injustices would actually perpetrate them even in the same sentence.
I didn't know it back then, but I was seeing the fallout of the residential schools, all in my family and community, and the trauma that led to addictions. We had family members who were veterans in the Second World War. And because they fought for Canada, they actually lost their Indian status because you'd lose your status if you were away from your community for four years. They served that long and then they came back and got no veterans supports. So all of this was around me, but you can't make sense of it when you’re a kid. You just feel and know that in this world, it's not OK to be who you are and that there are fences around what could be your reality and the reality of how other people saw you. I have felt that core of injustice throughout my life.
When did you realize that fighting this injustice would become your life’s work?
I became a child protection worker at the young age of 21, and I saw all these First Nations kids coming into these child welfare placements. I sat back and I thought, "OK, I'm all about holding people's feet to the fire to do better for kids. But a lot of these things that are happening to these families are beyond their ability to control.”
I think that when you're sitting in discrimination, it becomes normalized. We just knew that some of these communities had no water. We knew that the communities had no mental health services. We knew that they were living in places sometimes without electrical power, but we applied the same standard to them as we would to someone who had all of those things and went through none of the residential school trauma. That all felt wrong. And I was on the front lines for 15 years. And during that time, the injustice of that sharpened for me, because I saw what happened to kids when they grew up in child welfare care.
So I was sure of two things. Number one, somebody needed to do something about this injustice. And number two, I was absolutely the wrong person to do it. I was convinced there had to be someone else out there who is smarter than I am, more prepared than I am. I was also scared stiff of public speaking. So my self defense was, I'll try to make a difference in my own small way and wait for someone to appear. But once I realized that wasn't going to work, I ended up stepping across that place where light leads into darkness as Patrick Overton would say, and really praying that there's something solid to stand on or I'll be taught to fly.
Can you talk about some of the inequities that affected, and continue to affect, Indigenous youth and Indigenous communities?
Well, one of the things I came to understand is the reason that so many of these families lacked basic necessities, let alone getting to things like a proper school, was because the federal government funded public services for First Nations people, while the provinces funded it for everybody else at a far higher standard. The federal government also had something called the Indian Act, which it still has today, where it sorts out who they think is quote, status Indian, and who isn't. This very racist regime led to inequity in public services. Actually, when I started working nationally, I was so naive. I thought, "Oh, we’ll sit down with the government, we’ll show how these documented inequalities are harming kids and families and then they're going to fix it because we're going to create a solution for them." And that's what I spent about 10 years doing over two reports, only to realize something: The government already knew all of this.
They knew these inequalities existed. They knew they were driving more children into state care and residential schools. They were choosing to discriminate. And so, it was then that we had to move to another tactic and that tactic was to take the Canadian government to court, alongside the Assembly of First Nations. And within 30 days Canada responded and cut all of the F.N. Caring Society’s funding. And from that moment on, we've been independently funded. That was in 2007.
You were actually spied on by the government, is that right?
Yes. So they cut our funding and we didn't go away, which was unique. All these Indigenous organizations are federally funded, so as soon as they cut your funding you would go away, that was their strategy. When that didn't work with us, they brought all these motions to try and get our suit kicked out of court on technicalities, but that wasn't working for them either. So then, around 2009, for about three to four years, they followed my personal movements, trying to find something they could use against us.
As I said to my friends at the time, once you get over the horror shock of, "I can't believe they're following me around," I was actually a little embarrassed. I said, "My life is so boring that they followed me around for four years and couldn’t find anything!" Right? I don't know. I wish I had something spicy to report, that my life is more interesting than this, but it’s not. Anyway, we took them to court on that and I was awarded $20,000, which I donated all to children's causes, because it was not about the money for me. It was about defending the right of other human rights defenders to take Canada to court, through legitimate forms, to address human rights breaches. And I didn't want that kind of retaliation to stand.
You have won numerous victories in court over the years, including a big decision in 2016 at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Have these victories, and the attention they’ve brought to these issues, led to change?
In 2016 we did get a big win, with the tribunal ruling that First Nations children were in fact being discriminated against, but then Canada didn’t comply. So we've actually had 22 non-compliance and procedure orders since then and we're still in active litigation. So this is still an unfolding story. But the real hope around this is all the attention it has brought, and the subsequent pressure that has put on the government to act.
We started a campaign called I am a witness where we posted all the court documents and invited the public in to watch because the public has mostly been kept in the dark about the treatment of Indigenous people. By 2012, there were so many high school children in our courtrooms watching what Canada was doing that we had to book them in shifts!
That created a generation who was not normalized into the discrimination. People clearly see what's up and they expect better. And that public pressure has resulted in getting billions of dollars, for the first time in the history of the country, to keep Indigenous families together, instead of ripping them apart. We have money for children through something called Jordan's Principle, which is about ensuring non-discrimination in other public services.
What does this level of support mean to a family or a child?
It means everything. Kids can get wheelchairs, for example. Basic things they were denied before. Getting kids glasses so they can actually read in school and succeed. Getting children with autism, proper supports. Sometimes it's about getting the children medication. We just helped a family this last week, a family spending the last few sacred days of their child's life, and they needed a few supports so that all their attention could be on the child instead of worrying about finances. We're seeing more families being kept together, and more children in care being reunified with their families in a safe way. But we have got so much trauma to unpack that Canada has left us with, so it's going to take a while. But this is a real beacon of hope.
Those are some of the things we've been able to accomplish collectively through this case, but there's still other inequalities in other public services. One in six First Nations communities don’t have clean drinking water. Only 35% of First Nations have broadband access. And I'm in this for full equality, not just equality in one or two service areas. I think these kids are worth the money. And I definitely think that the country can't afford to discriminate against children in public services by race.
Could we take a step back, for a moment, and talk about residential schools? For those who don’t know, what were they and what is their legacy?
I'm going to start back in 1492, where there's actually a period called the Great Dying. In the 100 years after 1492, researchers estimate that Indigenous peoples in the Americas died at a rate of 90%—90% of the people were gone. That left that other 10% to carry on. And you can imagine what that would look like. We've been through the pandemic where we lost so many sacred lives, but imagine that scale of a loss. That allowed for this colonialism to really take hold. That and other egregious policies, by the Canadian and US governments. The governments were still encountering resistance in the 1800s, and they thought the one way to control the Indian is to control their child. They won't create wars against us if we have their kids—that was the Canadian government's official thing.
So they created residential schools, which were actually inspired by US military prisons, which is why there's a lot of roots in these schools on both sides of the border, separating boys from girls, giving them numbers to replace their names, malnutrition, rigorous schedules, servitude—that all came from that prison system indoctrination. Residential schools in Canada ran from the 1870s to about 1996.
They would forcibly separate children from their families throughout many of those years. So if you had children, they would come looking for them. I always say, I was in the forest picking pine cones when I was four years old. I had no idea people were actually hunting for me, because if they would've found me, they would've taken me. They wouldn't have even necessarily told my parents. They would've taken me to those schools. And in those schools, well…it was terrorizing. The children were beaten if they spoke their language. They were beaten if they couldn't speak French or English right away. They were told not to contact their family. If the family sent them something, it would be taken away. All their clothes would be taken away.
Residential schools have a long horrendous history and that history's still being lived out by many people. Many of the children were sexually abused. Many died there from preventable causes and abuse and maltreatment and murder. And these things were happening in plain sight. Throughout this entire period, there were people of all walks of life raising the alarm. People like hunters, who would find children frozen to death and would raise the alarm. But the reports would just go to the churches or the federal government and into a vacuum. That’s why public engagement, even today, is so important.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Day is coming up on September 30. You've spoken a lot here about the truth of the situation—can you talk about the role that reconciliation may play in the work that you're doing?
I don't think you get to reconciliation until you get to justice. And that means remedying these current inequalities. The best apology is changed behavior, in my view. And I've seen a lot of performative apologies come by. "We're sorry we did all these things to you." And then they continue the same behavior. We can't allow that to continue to happen. Not now. Not to the grandkids of these poor survivors who went through residential school. We owe those kids and we owe those survivors far better than that.
To me, history is for the living. We have to draw lessons from history so that we can deal with the contemporary injustices on our watch, like the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls or the communities that don’t have clean drinking water. We need to show our elected officials that we care and we’re going to be watching to see what they actually do, not just say, about these issues.
Can you talk about your organization, the F.N. Caring Society, and the work that you do there?
I'm so honored to be a part of this amazing team. We were created by residential school survivors and elders back in 1999.
We base all of our social justice movements on love, truth, and justice. We're about teaching and mentoring people to really empower themselves to co-create a society where First Nations kids don't have to recover from their childhoods and non-Indigenous kids don't have to say they're sorry. That's the type of society we're working for. Everything we provide is free of charge, because unlike other organizations that have membership fees and things like that, we want to make sure that, regardless of your income, you can learn to make a difference. What we want is your citizenship more than your wallet.
You've been in this work for so long—there must be times where you're discouraged. What sees you through those times? What gives you the energy and optimism to keep going?
Because children are the keepers of the possible. And I think if I can work with children, non-Indigenous children, children of all diversities—I just want them to grow up feeling proud of who they are, right? I want them to feel proud of who they are, because once they're proud of who they are, they can understand why our culture is important to us. And we stand in with them and with the First Nations kids and create friendships and relationships so that they grow up not trying to overcome difference, but celebrating difference.
What can people do to help advocate for Indigenous youth and help this movement?
Well, number one is, when you have an election coming up, be there at the door and ask them what they're doing to address the inequalities for Indigenous peoples. Not only here in Canada, by the way, but in the United States as well. Number two, you can go onto our website and find seven free ways you can make a difference. And the third thing I would do is check out all the great resources we have on our site. There are resources for kids that help you to learn as a family.
Are there events coming up that you’d like to let people know about?
Well, Orange Shirt Day, also on September 30, is going to be exciting. Orange is the color because there was a little girl who went into a residential school with an orange shirt made by her grandma. And the first thing they did was take all that away from her. Children had their favorite teddy bear or blanket, and the schools took all that away from them. So that’s why we wear orange shirts.
We’re going to have the Assembly of Seven Generations that day, a First Nations youth group and they're going to talk about stories of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit resistance and take the Canadian public on a tour. We're going to unveil a plaque to celebrate The Story of a National Crime, a pamphlet written 100 years ago about the awful conditions in residential schools.
Then we're going to show the public newspaper headlines from that time. When that report came out, there were headlines like "Absolute inattention to the bare necessities of health." "Children dying like flies." This was on the front pages of Canadian newspapers. We're going to say, Look, this narrative that people back then didn't know any better is not true. We as a nation have erased all these people who stood up against these objectionable things so that we can comfort ourselves by saying, "Nobody knew. We did everything possible."
So then the question becomes, "Do you see today’s headlines about murdered and missing indigenous women and girls? Well, what are you going to do?” Because when the headlines die, the kids die. That's the lesson from history. That’s what Orange Shirt Day is about. The Canadian government understood what was happening to the children in those schools, yet they chose to let them die. So we’re going to be giving people actions that they can take on murdered and missing Indigenous women, supporting Indigenous young people, addressing inequalities, taking better care of the land. It’s going to be an amazing day here on September 30 in Ottawa and everyone is welcome to join and learn with us.