1967 was a big year for Canada. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson hoisted the new maple leaf flag on Parliament Hill in honor of the country’s 100th birthday. Equality, fairness and good spirit abounded as Canada continued to draft in Pearson’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize for Canada’s peacekeeping efforts a decade earlier. While most Canadians enjoyed a high quality of life, the situation for First Nations was dire. Residential school operated throughout most of the country and discriminatory federal services bore down on another generation of First Nations children. The Canadian government knew about the inequalities and did little to fix them. In 1967, Alex Sim wrote a report on the longstanding inequities in First Nations education in Ontario for the federal government and asked “can anyone hazard a guess as to what year or what century real progress will be made towards the equality of Indian children?” (Sim, 1967, p. 35).
Sims’ report had not reached me in the huckleberry patches in northern B.C. and even if it had I was too young to read but I saw the racism everywhere. Depending on what day you asked me, I wanted to grow up to be a baker, a teacher, or a doctor but society told me that Indians like me just grew up to be a drunk on welfare. I did see the drunks – some were First Nations and some were white but it seemed only the First Nations drunks had the power to characterize the public opinion of an entire race. It looked odd, even then. How could Canadian legislators and citizens cherish fairness and equality while ignoring the trauma resulting in the addictions and saying such hurtful things about First Nations?
Decades later, the question remains as racism against First Nations peoples permeates federal government legislation and policy. The Indian Act continues to use blood quantum to define who is considered a “status” Indian and service on reserve result in multiple hardships for First Nations citizens. While federal government policies continue to languish in discrimination and racism, there has been some positive change.
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- Truth and Reconciliation Comission of Canada
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report put the trauma of the residential school legacy on the front pages of Canadian newspapers and inspired a small but growing movement of Canadians to actively engage in reconciliation. There are also more heartfelt messages of reconciliation coming from the new federal government that may bear fruit. Meanwhile, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal handed down a landmark decision on First Nations children’s services in January of 2016. The Tribunal found the federal government’s provision of flawed implementation of Jordan’s Principle and inequitable provision of First Nations Child and Family Services on reserves is racially discriminatory contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act and ordered the government to immediately cease its discriminatory practices. While the decision relates to child and family services it sets an important precedent to remedy inequities in areas such as First Nations education, housing, health and water.
Unfortunately, since this decision Canada has still not done anything to relieve the discrimination for children. The legal process continues and so does the discrimination.
While political and legal changes are necessary, Reconciliation’s real hope lies in raising a generation of Aboriginal children who do not have to recover from their childhoods and a generation of non-Aboriginal children who don’t have to grow up saying they are sorry. Children are experts in love and fairness and make no excuses for discrimination. Every February, I have the great honor of seeing thousands of children across Canada writing to the Prime Minister so all First Nations children can grow up safely in their families, get a good education, and be healthy and proud of who they are. They dream of a Canada free of discrimination where every child matters and are prepared to work for it. If other Canadians join them they can gift the country the best 150th birthday present ever- a future free of government based racial discrimination. Change is coming- it is growing up right now.
1. Jordan’s Principle is a child first principle to resolving jurisdictional disputes within and between federal and provincial/territorial governments regarding First Nations children. It ensures First Nations children can access public services on the same terms as other children. See jordansprinciple.ca for more information.
Cindy Blackstock is the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and Associate Professor at the University of Alberta and the Director of FNCARES.