Too often there is an assumption that colonization is not a present experience - Cindy Blackstock
Conference participant Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitksan Nation, has worked in the field of child and family services for over eighteen years. She worked for as a social worker for the provincial government as well as a First Nations child and family service agency before assuming her role as executive director of the Caring for First Nations Children Society in British Columbia in 1998. In her current capacity, Cindy is honoured to be the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS). This national organization seeks to promote, and support, the works and knowledge of First Nations child and family service agencies and regional organizations in Canada by providing research, professional development and networking services. A key project of the FNCFCS is the First Nations Research Site that disseminates research information to First Nations child and family service agencies and is currently coordinating three national research projects designed to benefit First Nations communities.
Cindy was honoured to participate in numerous provincial and national research projects. These include appointments to the Assembly of First Nations/Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development National Policy Review Committee as well as the First Nations Summit Action Committee for First Nations Children and Families. Current professional interests include being a member of the Advisory Committee on the Centre of Excellence for Child Welfare and a member of the Board of Directors for the Child Welfare League of Canada.
Here are some of my thoughts in order of the questions you asked. I must underscore that these are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect
the views of organizations with which I am employed or affiliated with.
What is the nature of your involvement with the movement for Social Inclusion?
Although much of my efforts have been to promote the recognition, rights and justice of First Nations peoples in Canada I have never really conceptualized my work within the social inclusion framework rather my efforts have been positioned within the concepts of reconciliation and social justice. I will get to the reasons for this below
Clearly, Canada's First Nations people have been systematically excluded from mainstream Canadian society since colonization. Can Social Inclusion help to reverse so many centuries of damage?
First Nations peoples and nations we are often described using a plethora of terms such as marginalized, vulnerable, at risk, or socially excluded and yet none of these terms has raised the awareness needed in order to promote focused civil and political action needed to affirm the strengths and wisdom of FN communities whilst redressing the impacts of colonization. In part this is because there is insufficient information amongst Canadians in general, and the social justice and inclusion networks more specifically.
Too often there is an assumption that colonization is not a present experience and little knowledge of the systemic barriers that continue to block the "way forward" as described in RCAP. So my long answer is yes this movement could be helpful but to do so it must unpack the values, ideologies and actions that support colonization, expose them, and work respectfully with Aboriginal peoples to implement RCAP and thus develop a respectful coexistence as distinct peoples.
The theme of the conference is Social Inclusion: "What do we know and where do we go?" Based on your own experience as a front-line worker and advocate for services for Aboriginal children, what is your view of Social Inclusion at the ground level?
There is, in my view, significant social exclusion of First Nations children and youth in Canadian society today. The impacts of colonization on this generation of children and youth has been well documented. For example, there are currently over 22,500 First
Nations children in the care of child welfare authorities - very few of these children will be placed with Aboriginal families. (that is roughly
three times the number who were in residential schools at the height of that regime in the 1940's) The rate at which First Nations children on reserve are entering foster care has increased a staggering 71.5% from 1995-2001 based on INAC data and yet there continues to be inadequate resources for statutory services intended to support children at risk within their homes.
Poverty, youth suicide, low rates of educational success and racism are problems as well. The question for the social inclusion network is that these challenges have been known in Canadian society for years and yet there has not been the type of concerted, organized and persistent movement needed to put First Nations back on their feet. After almost 20 years of working in this field I am convinced that sustained social well being for First Nations children, youth and families will only be achieved if there is a recognition of community self-determination and an investment in sustainable community development, of which child and youth well being are critical considerations. To date, the reality in many First Nations communities, is that social development is based on whatever targetted social programs government decides to fund - not whatever the First Nations community determines would be helpful and how it could most respectfully and sustainably resourced.
Has it helped you or others you know of to advance an agenda of human rights, quality of life, and democratic participation in all aspects of citizenship and community life? Have you seen it make a difference?
This is where I need to be very humble in saying no it has not helped because, at least for me, the expression of the concept within the social inclusion terminology is relatively new. In all of my years in this work at a community, provincial and national level I have not, other than this invitation to present at this conference, received information or been invited to dialogue about social inclusion- nor to my knowledge have any of my colleagues. I do know that the spirit of social inclusion in many ways shapes our persistent efforts but not the terminology. I am not sure to what degree the social inclusion movement has reached out to First Nations service providers or leadership.
You have written that social policy as concerns Aboriginal people still borders on the colonial. Do you see Social Inclusion as a meaningful way to move away from this direction?
The document Human Rights: Apartheid in South Africa contains the following passage
"Under Apartheid, racist beliefs were enshrined in law and any criticism of the law was suppressed. Apartheid was racism made law. It was a system dictated in the minutest detail as to how and where the large black majority would live, work and die. This system of institutionalized racial discrimination defied the principles of the United Nations Charter and the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Canada is home to the Indian Act, which stipulates not only who can, and cannot be, a status Indian but also what form of government we can have, land ownership and transfer, land use, housing, reserve designations and burial and wills and estates. It is the driver that tries to shape the identity and future of First Nations children and it's force is felt even at the end of life. The Indian Act is a race-based act and yet it is not being abolished as RCAP recommended. It has become part of a rationalized part of Canadian society and it exists silently along side the tragic statistics mapping out the lived experiences of the First Nations children and youth who's lives it has shaped. Instead Canada is updating the Indian Act - but this is a race based act... updating it does not make racism just.
This Act affects the way in which children and youth services are delivered to on-reserve residents as Section 88 gives power to provincial/territorial child welfare legislation whilst negating the value of First Nations laws. This would be okay, if provincial/territorial child welfare legislation had over this past 50 years improved the conditions for children and youth but they have not. There is a need to find new answers sourced in the First Nations laws that ensured child and youth well being for millenia prior to European immigration. There must be a concerted effort to affirm First Nations decision making and authority in child welfare - not just service delivery.
This is a situation where racism and exclusion have become normalized. The social inclusion movement would be helpful in bringing this conversation out into Canadian society and redressing the drivers of First Nations social exclusion not just the symptoms of it. I believe that it is the Indian Act and the failure to implement sustainable self government for First Nations as RCAP recommended that are the drivers for the continued exclusion of First Nations peoples.
There is a need for a broader conversation and working with the government of Canada to implement the RCAP recommendations and the concordant recommendations of many joint reviews conducted by various government departments and First Nations on issues relevant to First Nations children youth and families.
Do you know of instances where advocates for child services have been able to use the language of Social Inclusion to create positive change, new opportunities, and improved quality of life for native youth?
No, I am not aware of any where the expression of the term social inclusion has made a meaningful difference but I do feel that the spirit of social inclusion has been helpful in drawing investment in First Nations language and cultural programs. There is of course, much more that needs to be done especially as demographics show that the First Nations population is significantly a young population.
Do you see meaningful government and social responses and the potential for more by advancing the values of Social Inclusion?
I do see potential here - especially as it is a concept that is recognized by government and thus provides another ambit within which to dialogue and seek action on many of the outstanding issues and conditions facing First Nations children, youth and families. It will require, as I stated earlier, greater education on FN history, current experience and cooperation with FN to determine how best to collaborate on future action. It will also require a sustained focused effort.
Are you concerned that the rhetoric of Social Inclusion could be used to perpetuate traditional attitudes and failed policies of the past? If so, could you describe specifically some of what you see that concerns you? How could such problems be mitigated or avoided?
Yes I am concerned about that potential.
1. My key concern is that too often there is an acknowledgment of the social and economic exclusion of First Nations peoples but nothing else. We no longer need a map forward, RCAP provided that, what we need is sustained engagement by Canadians in ensuring that RCAP is implemented and developing the vigilance necessary to respond to emerging instances of colonization or assimilation. The goal is to live together as distinct peoples this means celebrating difference instead of always overcoming difference.
2. Concerns include not acknowledging the diversity that exists amongst Aboriginal peoples in Canada. An over reliance on terms such as Aboriginal, Native, Indigenous often lead to policies that fail to respond adequately to the significant cultural and contextual diversity amongst peoples and nations. It also masks the distribution of resources - a budget speech that targets X amount of dollars for "aboriginal child care" does not tell us much - Is it going to First Nations on or off reserve, to Metis or to Inuit?
Even if they say First Nations - there are 609(INAC) or 633(AFN) First Nations in Canada - will they all benefit from this program? What hand did the intended beneficiaries have in priority and program development?
3. Social inclusion must be framed to allow First Nations to live sustainably as distinct peoples - this means inclusion without sacrificing difference. It also means redressing the imbalance of power by educating Canadians about the substantial contributions of First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in Canada - including sharing the resources and lands of this nation with them. Resources and land that have made Canada a G-8 country and ranked it number 3 in the world according to the Human Development Index (HDI) . It means advising Canadians of the diversity, and the inequities (FN would be ranked 79th in the world based on the HDI
ranking according to a INAC study) and unmasking the normality of racism and expressions of racism such as the Indian Act. It means activating our networks to ensure that fundamental freedom, equality, and recognition of Aboriginal Rights and Title are no longer within a infinite cycle of negotiation but are instead valued and affirmed.
4. Canadians need to know the history of this country and its relationship with Aboriginal peoples and understand that reconciliation should not be deferred to governments - it is a personal and organizational responsibility. This means greater and sustained involvement of the voluntary sector, the human rights community, and all members of Canadian governments. For all of us- it is about shaping the kind of future we want for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children and youth.
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