The case for an inquiry into Canada’s treatment of First Nations children

Cindy Blackstock: ‘Canada continues to treat First Nations people as if they are not worth the money by providing deficient public services on reserves and choosing to not implement solutions’
People contribute to a hand painting during the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
People contribute to a hand painting during the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and a professor at McGill University.

I really don’t like inquiries. They often amount to a lot of political show and not much action. But today I am making an exception—mostly out of profound desperation. We need a public inquiry into the departments of Justice and Indigenous Services Canada to stop their repeated abuses against First Nations children. In the wake of residential schools and tearful apologies from federal politicians and officials, Canada continues to treat First Nations people as if they are not worth the money by providing deficient public services on reserves and choosing to not implement solutions. The ongoing choices made by these two departments—and collateral departments, to ignore solutions to properly fix its inequitable First Nations public services and other injustices is literally costing the Canadian public tens of billions of dollars and costing First Nations children their childhoods and, in some cases, their lives.

Just earlier this month, three First Nations children died in a house fire at Sandy Lake First Nation. Community officials connect the deaths to woefully insufficient fire and emergency services, saying that “a lack of adequate water lines and infrastructure prevented the use of fire hydrants” to put out the fire. The lack of adequate resources and infrastructure on First Nations reserves is not news to Canada; the federal government has known about this problem for years and chose not to fix it. When stories of the injustices hit the media, Canada does sometimes act, but often in just a perfunctory way to defuse public pressure. Consider a recent Department of Justice’s news conference announcing $332,270 to support the families of over 4,000 murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. That is about $83 per victim.

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The cost of this chronic negligence came into stark relief this past month when the government finally admitted that its ongoing discrimination towards First Nations children required $40 billion to compensate victims and fix inequalities in federally funded First Nations child welfare services. This federal announcement was not voluntary. It came after 15 years of litigation by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations, over 30 government losses in Canadian courts and significant public pressure. All of this was necessary to fix a problem that would have only cost hundreds of millions to fix back in 2000 when the federal government agreed its under-funding of First Nations child welfare was driving more First Nations children into child welfare than during residential schools. Instead of fixing the problem then, even though it had a surplus budget, the government chose to kick the problem downstream, and now the receipts have come due, and Canada has to pay. But First Nations children have already paid with their childhoods.

Half of the $40 billion will compensate First Nations children and families victimized by Canada’s apartheid public services; many of them are still children. Nearly 60,000 First Nations children (that is more than the populations of New Westminster, B.C., or Fredericton, N.B.) were removed from their homes since 2006 because Canada’s deficient public services denied families the chance to recover from the multi-generational harms of residential schools. Other children were denied public services because they were First Nations. Undisputed evidence shows that the government denied a four-year-old girl in palliative care respiratory equipment, capped the number of catheters and feeding tubes, and denied basic educational and respite supports for special needs children.

Even after Canada was ordered to cease its discriminatory conduct in 2016, it continued its wrongdoing. Over 20 non-compliance and procedural orders were required to get to the $40-billion announcement. During this time, First Nations children continued to go into foster care at record rates because service providers did not have the funding needed to keep families together, and at least three children died because Ottawa defied legal orders and failed to provide mental health supports.

This whole matter of the government’s choice to not do better for First Nations children when it knows better needs to be “ventilated” in a public inquiry. That is what Peter Henderson Bryce, Canada’s health inspector for the Indian Department, called for in his 1922 booklet called A National Crime. It was part of his repeated attempts to save the lives of “Indian” children in residential schools who were dying at a rate of 25 per cent per year from tuberculosis fuelled by Ottawa’s unequal health care funding for “Indians” and terrible health practices in the institutions, which he first reported on in 1907. Canadian media covering the story in 1907 characterized the government’s behaviour as “Absolute Inattention to the Bare Necessities of Health” and reported that “Indians are dying like flies.” In 1908, lawyer Samuel Hume Blake famously noted that, “[i]n doing nothing to obviate the preventable causes of death,” the Indian Department brings itself “within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.”

When the images of the unmarked graves ignited a public outcry this past summer, I found myself wondering: how many of those children would have been saved had Canada listened to the people of that period? And how many children could be saved if Canada stopped fighting First Nations children in court and complied with the legal orders to stop its discriminatory conduct now?

Political claims that Canada has “done more than any other government,” is “making good first steps and is committed to reconciliation” are an affront to the suffering of First Nations children and families who continue to be treated as if they are not worth the money.

Once implemented, the $40 billion in support will help families, but it will not end all the inequalities in public services on reserves. To ensure Canada ends its repeated offences against First Nations children, we need a public inquiry into Canada’s continued failure to provide equitable infrastructure and services, and we need a public and comprehensive plan to fix the discrimination across the board. As Sandy Lake First Nations Chief Delores Kakegamic asserted after the tragedy in her community earlier this month: “We should have the same level of support as anyone else in Canada. Lives are at stake.”