Social Inequality During the Pandemic

Cindy Blackstock, McGill University Professor, joins Vardit Ravitsky for a discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities and how years of neglect left them unable to combat the pandemic on equal terms.





Vardit Ravitsky: There is no longer any doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a greater toll on marginalized groups in our society, and exposed gaping holes in our health and social security networks. Cindy Blackstock, Professor at the McGill School of Social Work and Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, has to say she wasn’t really surprised.


Cindy Blackstock: Well, I'm a proud member of the Gitxsan First Nation of British Columbia, and I'm a professor at McGill University and the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. What I really do is spend most of my days trying to get equitable access to public services for First Nations children in Canada. They still get less across the board in almost every public service, simply because of who they are. 


Vardit R.: You know, a lot of Canadians have read in the media and have seen on the news that the impact of COVID on First Nations has been more severe, that communities on reserves are at higher risk. Why is that? 


Cindy Blackstock: Well, one of the reasons that is, is it goes right back to Confederation. The federal government funds all public services on reserve, whereas the provinces and territories fund them for everyone else. The problem is, is that the federal government has chronically underfunded all of these services by a significant portion, as much as 50 percent, 30 percent. And of course, we have First Nations without water, without proper sanitation systems. And I should underscore that this isn't a question of remoteness. Some of your listeners will remember just a couple of weeks ago in White Rock, which is right next to Vancouver, there's a First Nation there that was under a boil water advisory for well over several decades. So this is a question of when you're on reserve, you get less. And that is been highly, highly problematic. It really puts First Nations at a severe disadvantage from the outset because you're not able to deal with the regular types of things that will come your way as a society. 


Vardit R.: I'd like to ask you, Cindy, about your first memory of the pandemic or closing a year now of living in these extremely unusual circumstances. What was the first moment after the pandemic was announced by the WHO that you realized that this is going to have a very different impact on First Nations communities or your first experience from a professional perspective with a pandemic?


Cindy Blackstock: It was immediate. It was kind of like my heart skipped a beat because I knew how vulnerable some of these communities were. And I need to just say that that vulnerability isn't because of the First Nations communities. That vulnerability exists because governments make choices to give them less and place them in those vulnerable situations by underfunding all of these services. And so when even in the early days of the pandemic, they were telling us things like, you know, don't go out of your home, wash your hands, all of that stuff. And I knew how impossible that was going to be for so many First Nations families across this country. And I really was very, very worried for what it would look like. The other thing, though, that I I thought about is that if I was in a community where there was no water. Covid-19 probably wouldn't have been my top worry. Talk or it would be about how do I get a clean glass of water for my child or for an elder who's living in my home. Covid-19 is a serious issue but arguably, if I was to turn off the water taps of every person in Canada, they would actually be more concerned about the water shortage than they would about COVID-19. And that is the reality of First Nations folks for far too many people across the country.


Vardit R.: So describe for us how the pandemic played out in such disadvantaged settings. What what happened on the ground.


Cindy Blackstock: Right. Well, First Nations communities, many of the leadership and the elders and knowledge keepers decided to lock the communities down so that no one would be able able to go in or out of the community unless it was absolutely necessary. That was that was an essential step, because without water or without overcrowded homes, if that virus got in there, it would just spread like wildfire. But that also meant that families were being separated. There was a lot less freedom of movement than even I got here in Ottawa during the most severe parts of the lockdown. And keep in mind that only thirty five percent of First Nations have access to broadband in their households. So while you and I might have been struggling with online work and have people in the household struggling with online learning, that wasn't even an option in First Nations communities. 


Vardit R.: Cindy, you told me at one point during the early stage of the pandemic about a conversation you had with your mother. Would you care to share that with us? 


Cindy Blackstock: Yeah, well, my mom has followed me in what is now a 14-year piece of litigation against the Canadian government to get equitable services for First Nations children. The Canadian government was found responsible in 2016 for racially discriminating against these kids by underfunding these services with an order to stop. It was a legal binding order. And yet Canada did not stop. It took very limited, piecemeal measures. And it took, I think we're up to nine noncompliance orders. Finally, we are starting to see some movement, but that's that's just beginning to comply with the law by the Canadian government. So my mom has watched this all these years. And her question was, you know, "Why? Why would any government give little kids less because of who they are? And so when COVID started happening, she said, "I didn't even know we had all this money." If the government was spraying money everywhere. And what that said to her is that it was always possible to get First Nations children a clean glass of water. It was always possible to give them equitable education. It was always possible to get them equitable health care. It was a choice by successive governments not to do it. 


Vardit R.: I cannot imagine the frustration that this would entail for people who have been watching this unfolding for so many years. 


Cindy Blackstock: Yeah, it's the quiet pandemic really. These types of, this kind of chronic problem goes unaddressed. And we let governments get off with these ideas while First Nations, "You can be patient. We can't create change overnight." Well, this has been going on for one hundred and fifty three years. It's not overnight. And governments always do complicated things. We've seen that during this pandemic, too, thankfully, with the very quick rollout of CERB and other types of support. So it's really unthinkable that we can roll out things like CERB, we can do a trade agreement with that crazy that used to be in the White House. And yet we're still struggling to get equitable services to First Nations children. I can't, I don't understand it.


Vardit R.: We are all aware of the unequal impact that the pandemic had on racialized communities and on all sorts of minorities and disadvantaged groups. So I wanted to ask you what it felt like during that pandemic to see the debate, the discourse in Canada around racism. People were asking, are we like the United States? Are we different? Is there racism in Canada? I know that you found this conversation extremely frustrating, but I want to hear from you about this. 


Cindy Blackstock: Yeah. You know, I think in Canada, we have this kind of identity, this Canadian identity, about being a bastion of human rights, that this kind of racism that we see in the United States against black people and against others, that doesn't happen here, is kind of the narrative in Canada. But I like to remind people that we have the Indian Act. It is the only race based piece of legislation in the Western world, and it's been here as long as the country has. And just to give you a sense of what it is to look, to live under the Indian Act, it would decide, for example, if you had a baby, whether that child was status or non status First Nations. And what that means is whether the government would recognize any rights that it or obligations it has to you as a First Nations person to that child. [00:09:32] [00:09:40] It requires that the reserve system be set up. Those reserves, a reserve of boundaries were set up in eighteen hundreds. And unlike like the municipal boundaries of, say, Ottawa or Toronto, they didn't grow as the population grew, they stood static. And that's why we get all that overcrowding. It replaced the band government with band councils. And so you end up with this whole racist colonial act being applied to First Nations and, you know, systemic racism towards First Nations folks in Canada is actually threaded in the DNA of the actual country. And it was colonialism was rolled out not only to disadvantage and severely oppress and violate the rights of First Nations, Métis and Indian peoples, but it purposely left caring Canadians in the dark. And it wove this narrative that were so great and we'll never be like the Americans, don't worry. And that has led to the average Canadian less so today than, say, about a decade ago, but many Canadians still can't see the systemic discrimination. They don't believe it could happen here, but it is happening here. And once we acknowledge it, then we'll be able to deal with it. 


Vardit R.: And you're right that most Canadians really have this sense that we are a society based on solidarity, justice, human rights. There's this discrepancy that's really hard to come to terms with between our sort of image of ourselves as Canadians. And the reality or describing. 


Cindy Blackstock: It is really hard. But it's I think what I would invite people to do is, is be curious. Get on to Google and Google the Indian Act. Just look at the table of contents. And then we at the Caring Society ways people can make ay have 73 ways people can make a difference in under 15 minutes. Read the auditor general of Canada's reports, the parliamentary budget officers reports. All of the evidence is right there. We just have to try and de-normalize this discrimination and see it. And once we see it and embrace it as a society, then we have a hope of living up to that identity that for far too many years has been a myth but can become a reality. That we are a country of justice, that we are a country human rights, and that we're not afraid of acknowledging where things hurt in our society and addressing. 


Vardit R.: So, you know, so many of us are saying constantly that we can't wait to go back to normal, go back to our normal lives, social lives, professional lives. But this expression of craving the back to normal is so prevalent, especially now, is the vaccines are rolling out. I imagine that for you, going back to normal is not exactly how you would like to see the future. So tell us what what kind of normal would you like to see after covid? 

Cindy Blackstock: I want to see the Canadian government finally cut its chains with this long history of apartheid services for First Nations children, families and young people. I want them to finally agree to something called the spirit of Aeroplan, which is to cost out all the inequities in First Nations public services and address them like a Marshall Plan and make this the first generation of First Nations kids who knows what it is to be treated in a fair and equitable and culturally based way. I'd like to see similar actions happening for Inuit communities and Métis communities where there are these action plans that are literally sitting right there with the government of Canada that they could they could really get going on A.S.A.P. and make a huge difference in the lives of children. That's the kind of reality I want to I want to see. I believe that every First Nations, Métis and Inuit child is sacred and every one of those kids is worth the money. And we have got to stop being a country that saves money by racially discriminating against these children, depriving them of basic services like water and proper health care and schools without black mold so that we can fund things like big sporting events or big festivals or all these things that we like to enjoy. We cannot use racial discrimination as a fiscal restraint measure and still feel proud of ourselves as a collective society. 


Vardit R.: You know, one of the things that the pandemic has done is really to show us what it looks like when governments invest in an urgent fashion to achieve a goal, the kind of enlisting that occurs when the threat is real and present. But how did you feel seeing the these investments after so many years of working so hard to change the priorities of the government and all of a sudden the threat on the majority makes so much possible?


Cindy Blackstock: You know, when I thought about is what it would look like if I was one of those First Nations children getting less. I thought about Shannen Koostachin, one of my greatest heroes, First Nations girl from Attawapiskat First Nation, who led a child rights campaign in Canada, inviting non-Indigenous kids to write letters to the government so that the kids in Attawapiskat and in other First Nations could get a proper school. And the reason that she was doing this is that her school sat on a toxic waste dump of sixty thousand, pardon me, thirty thousand gallons of diesel fuel and that those diesel fuel fumes were making the kids sick. And Shannen spent her whole childhood fighting for an equal school because she said school is a time for dreams and every kid deserves this. And when she was 13, she had to go hundreds of kilometers away from her community to go to high school because the school in her own community was so underfunded, she could never become a human rights lawyer to stand up for kids education rights that she wanted. And it was there in 2010 as she was going to the high school. She would have never have attended had the one in her own community been funded properly, that she dies in an automobile accident. Shannen Koostachin never knew what it was like to be treated the same as other kids in Canada. She always knew in her entire childhood that the government felt she wasn't worth the money. This is a girl who is nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize, one of forty five kids in the world to receive that honor. And yet the government of Canada didn't think that kids like her worth the money. And that's what I thought of when I saw the government spending all kinds of money on all of this emergency response and yet still fighting against First Nations children in court.


Vardit R.: You know, so many of my colleagues in different disciplines talk about the pandemic as a teachable moment. They say, yes, this showed us the deep inequity in our society. It showed us how the marginalized groups are impacted by the disease and a more severe way it exposed vulnerability. I want to go back with you to this notion of teachable moment. Do you think that Canadian society will learn, will implement the lessons that covid has been teaching us?


Cindy Blackstock: I think that depends. I think one of the things that I feel hopeful of is I find so many Canadians of all diversities, including all political diversities, once they look at the credible reports of the auditor general, the legal rulings against Canada and everything else, and they show these inequalities there, quite frankly, appalled that this is going on and they really want to see it stop where I think that in this particular case, I think that Canadians as a whole are actually out in front of the government. I think the government is really operating in the dark ages on a lot of these issues. I saw thousands and thousands of Canadians come to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's events to listen to survivors, to stand in solidarity. They have a vision of this country that's greater and more humane than that, for which the government thinks it is possible right now. So if people get on their members of parliament and say, you know what, black lives do matter to me, First Nations kids, they deserve it. They matter to me. We want to see children not grow up where the TB rate is like hundreds of times more than it is in every other part of the society and made children having access to culture based services. If people do that, then we we take this moment from just being a teachable moment into a moment of action that can transform the country. 


Vardit R.: Thank you so much, Cindy, for taking the time to talk to us and for being such an inspiring leader. You've touched our intellects and our hearts and your your plea for a better Canada is very well heard. Thank you so much.


Cindy Blackstock: Well, thank you for our time and for your listeners. When you say Kanata, it's actually a First Nations word. So use that as your memory and your opportunity to do something to make this world a better and more just place for First Nations. Thank you.