‘Platitudes without a lot of commitments’: Cindy Blackstock on the leaders’ debate and reconciliation

TVO.org speaks with the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada about the leaders’ debate and what was — and wasn’t — said about Indigenous issues
By Nick Dunne - Published on Sep 13, 2021
Cindy Blackstock with Spirit Bear, who represents the children affected by the First Nations child-welfare case at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. (Courtesy of Cindy Blackstock)

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The federal leaders’ English debate, held Thursday, covered issues ranging from climate change to Afghanistan. But Indigenous issues were also at the fore: the leaders were asked to comment on drinking-water advisories in First Nations communities, violence targeting Mi’kmaq fisheries, and the unmarked graves that have been discovered in residentials schools across the country — and, more generally, how their respective platforms address reconciliation. 

TVO.org speaks with Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, about the debate, what she did and didn’t see from the parties, and why most politicians aren’t willing to confront the truth. 

TVO.org: Before we get into some of the specifics of Thursday’s debate, I’d like to get your general thoughts on how it went.  What did you think of the format and the quality of the questions and answers?

Cindy Blackstock: I would have liked to have seen it be a little bit more in-depth and a lot less talking over one another. It was difficult at times to even hear what the various candidates were saying. I appreciated the diversity of the folks that were asking the questions, and I was particularly pleased to see APTN being invited onto the panel. But the quality of the answers was pretty public-relations-focused and not really substantive in terms of being based on the facts.

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TVO.org: You mentioned the inclusion of APTN’s Melissa Ridgen as a debate panellist. What did you think of her approach to questioning each leader?

Blackstock: When you ask specifics, you get a sense of how well-versed that particular candidate is on the issue: whether or not they’re prepared to give you a specific straight answer or whether it’s going to be one of these kind of diversion tactics into another topic or simply list platitudes without a lot of commitments.

Agenda segment, July 1, 2021: Speaking truth to Canada's power

TVO.org: Ridgen first went to Yves-Francois Blanchette, leader of the Bloc Québécois, asking about systemic racism in Quebec and citing Joyce Echaquan’s death and the ensuing inquiry. He acknowledged that systemic racism exists in Quebec but said these issues were being used as a “political tool” against his province. What did you make of that response?

Blackstock: I felt it was really insensitive that he would take what was clearly an egregious treatment of a First Nations woman in her last moments of life by hospital staff — an example, clearly, of systemic discrimination — and try to twist that into some kind of personal insult against the people of Quebec. I think that’s wrong. And because the government doesn’t want to acknowledge it, it means that the government won’t deal with it. And that is very dangerous, not only for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in Quebec, but also for other persons in Quebec who really want to see a dignified, moral government.

TVO.org: Ridgen asked Annamie Paul how the Green Party of Canada would deal with both the child-care systemand issues around trauma and poverty. 

Blackstock: What we need to see is a plan: How are you going to, for example, fully observe the 21 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders to end discrimination against First Nations kids? How are you going to implement the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action and the recommendations for the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls? What I would have liked to have seen from the Green platform is some specifics on those items, and they’re really not there. I appreciate it in a debate — they can’t go into a lot of detail — but it would be nice to know that their opinions are backed by specific considered responses to these matters. 

TVO.org: Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was questioned about his government’s record, especially as concerns boil-water advisories — promises that were made and not kept. How did he defend his record, and was it enough?

Blackstock: No, it’s not. We still have an apartheid public-service system in this country, where federally funded services for First Nations children are less than for everybody else. And the government had every opportunity to develop a holistic plan and implement that plan to remedy all the inequalities facing First Nations. For water, long-term boil-water advisories are not the right target: 73 per cent of First Nations water systems are at medium to high risk of contamination. 

What we’re looking for is people to be able to turn on taps and get clean running water in their homes that won’t make them sick. And that should be the standard.

TVO.org: Ridgen’s question to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh pertained to how his party would deal with its provincial counterparts, using the example of the British Columbia NDP government’s issues around fishing and logging rights. Singh’s answer dealt more with RCMP reform, and I’m wondering whether you felt that was sufficient.

Blackstock: RCMP reform is one step, but political reform is very important, and that was the missing element to that answer. So the governments writ large have a pattern of passing legislation around First Nations, Métis, Inuit peoples and then not following it. The B.C. government adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And then literally days later, it was involved in breaching the rights of the Wet’suwet’en.,so that kind of inconsistency needs to be called out. 

TVO.org: Ridgen asked Conservative leader Erin O’Toole about the fact that he did not vote in favour of adopting UNDRIP and that his current platform includes laws around protest for pipelines and resource projects. O’Toole said he’s concerned about UNDRIP’s potential to hinder resource partnerships with Indigenous communities.

Blackstock: It is vital in a democracy that people can speak out about issues that they don’t agree with. Canada has the weakest whistleblower protections in the Western, industrialized world. 

Regarding his position on UNDRIP, I find it really interesting when governments make these types of statements — that the reason that they won’t adopt a law that’s supported by First Nations and affirms self-determination for First Nations is because this may actually interfere with resource projects. [It’s like saying] “because we think we know better than them, we’re going to protect them against themselves.” That is the antithesis of self-determination.

TVO: There was an open debate period focusing on the Indian Act and how each party would move away from it. What did you see in that debate, and what would you have wanted to see?

Blackstock: What I would have liked to have seen is someone coming up to the plate and saying how we’re going to implement the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples from 1996 that provided a 20-year plan away from the Indian Act. The Canadian government needs to get rid of the Indian Act; it needs to follow the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in order to supplant it with a more just and, frankly, legal foundation for its treatment of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples.

TVO.org: Something that really stuck out to me in that open debate segment on the Indian Act was that the discussion shifted to an argument around flags. Trudeau began criticizing O’Toole over comments about keeping the Canadian flag up in the wake of the bodies found in Kamloops and other residential schools. O’Toole responded by saying there can be pride taken in the country as it addresses these tragedies. It seemed to divert from a policy-heavy topic. Any thoughts on that?

Blackstock: It was a serious diversion. We see this all the time when they are not informed or choose not to enter into serious debate on the government’s choice to not implement these robust solutions that are already on the books. The RCAP is one; the TRC calls to action is another; the MMIWG inquiry calls for justice is another. When they don’t want anyone to look at their own lack of accountability for choosing not to implement that, they pick these symbolic things and try to steer the conversation away. And I think that’s really an injustice to all those First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children that were found in the grounds of residential schools. 

TVO.org: You said earlier that the debate’s format got in the way of a deep discussion around what these parties plan to do. Was it enough to have Indigenous issues as a single segment in a larger debate?

Blackstock: I actually support Assembly of First Nations’ chief Rose Archibald’s suggestion of having a debate only on First Nations, Métis, and Inuit issues. The reason is compelling, and it’s that we have now over 5,000 kids who are in unmarked graves on federally run residential schools. There ought to be a considered and detailed and focused conversation about the particular rights abuses and injustices foisted onto First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. It shouldn’t just be one topic among many. And I’m hoping that that happens. I’m hoping that the leaders would be prepared to enter into that space and answer key questions about what they would do if they formed government — and, indeed, even what they’d do if they formed opposition: Are they going to hold the federal government or whoever it is accountable for implementing the solutions that are already on the books?

Agenda segment, September 6, 2021: Indigenous truths

TVO.org: Is the lack of a focused debate on the topic an issue of political leadership or of the public’s lack of will?

Blackstock: in my view, in the past, I would have said both, for sure. But my view now is that Canadians are out in front of the vast majority of political parties — and certainly the government — in terms of their readiness to accept the truth. Canadians want to know what happened to those children. Why is it that we have so many murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls? Why is it that we have 20 non-compliance orders for a simple judgment to treat First Nations children equitably in child welfare and other public services? Why is it that lobster fishers are having their lobster pounds burnt and everything else without a lot of government support? People are asking these questions, and they want justice. And I think that government and the political parties themselves are the ones that don’t want to have that conversation, because that conversation makes them accountable for their own behaviour. 

TVO.org: You say that you used to see it as an issue of both public and political leadership. What changed that?

Blackstock: Number one, I think that the stories are starting to pile up on the Canadian consciousness with the survivors of residential schools having told their truths, the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls telling the truth, and then also the unmarked graves, the litigations, and the education in schools. It’s been very important to having an informed public. The other thing that’s very important has been Indigenous media, who have been really ensuring that these stories affecting First Nations Métis, and Inuit peoples get covered. And then the spillover effect has been that the mainstream media has become more engaged in telling these stories to Canadians. So all of this has culminated in a place where the public is much more informed and asking more question. Is it perfect? No. There’s much more work to do, particularly with adults, because they didn’t get the information in school. But the change is starting to happen in a big way.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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