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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

How Spirit Bear became the symbol of First Nations child welfare

BY Patrick Quinn Oct 25, 2019

According to legends of the Kitasoo and other First Nations living near the Great Bear Rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, Raven the Creator made one in 10 black bears white to remind him of when the world was covered by frozen glaciers. As bears are considered keepers of dreams and memory, the Spirit Bear found in this rainforest is perhaps also an appropriate symbol for childhood purity.

A little toy “Spirit Bear” has become a constant presence in the movement for Indigenous child welfare equality since being given to Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. After receiving it from the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council in British Columbia in 2008, Blackstock brought her new fuzzy friend back to Ottawa where her organization was launching a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) complaint.  

The Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) claimed the federal government discriminates against children on reserves by providing less child welfare and health services than exist elsewhere in the country. Blackstock’s Spirit Bear accompanied her to every hearing, which she said was to remind everyone that this case was about real children.

Now the Caring Society is proposing the Spirit Bear Plan, which is also endorsed by the AFN. Beyond full compliance with the tribunal’s rulings in the case, its five calls to action include a thorough and independent evaluation of all relevant government departments, proper implementation of Jordan’s Principle and mandatory training for public servants to identify and address ongoing discriminatory ideologies.

“People often focus on money or political agenda, but at the end of the day our work is focused on children and families,” explained Andrea Auger, the Caring Society’s reconciliation and research manager. “Spirit Bear is a great reminder to all of us why we’re here doing this work. He’s become a symbol of reconciliation.”

As the tribunal process continued, Spirit Bear was gradually personified with a social media account and clothing given by supporters. With large audiences of children at the hearings, the Caring Society realized that Spirit Bear could help raise awareness for the issue while overcoming the often-dry legal proceedings.

“It was probably one of the most viewed cases ever at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal,” Auger told the Nation. “We wanted to create a resource for young people to actually understand the high-level court hearings. Cindy had an idea to write his story of how he came to the tribunal hearing and telling the story about Jordan River Anderson.”

Jordan was an Indigenous child born with complex medical needs, who died at age five after spending two years unnecessarily in a Manitoba hospital while governments argued who should pay for his home care. Jordan’s Principle calls for children to access essential services from whichever government receives the request first, with payment responsibility to be worked out later.

Spirit Bear has become the symbol of Jordan’s Principle as well as the star of various children’s books and upcoming animations written by Blackstock. The books are accompanied by learning guides to facilitate classroom education and are available in Cree and Carrier translations. 

“Cindy has a natural knack to write for young people,” said Auger. “Children really understand what fairness and equity are. They don’t see things as complicated – (they think) why aren’t these kids getting what we have?”

In 2016, the tribunal found Canada guilty of “wilful and reckless” racial discrimination. It has since issued seven more compliance orders, culminating in last month’s order to compensate each eligible child and guardian $40,000 – the maximum allowed. However, days before the October 6 deadline, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government challenged the landmark ruling and is now seeking for a judicial review.

“They’re asking for a full quashing of the tribunal’s order,” stated Blackstock. “It really suggests to me that Canada continues to not accept responsibility for its conduct as resulting in the unnecessary family separations of First Nations children in levels far higher than at residential schools and, in some cases, the deaths of children.”

Trudeau said he doesn’t challenge the tribunal’s conclusion that compensation should be awarded. But he argued that the current election campaign makes it impossible to complete the necessary conversations and planning with provinces and Indigenous communities before December 10, the date given by the tribunal to confirm the qualification and distribution process. 

Legal experts have rejected this reasoning, suggesting Trudeau could have requested a deadline extension and he’s had since 2016 to negotiate compensation. The government’s application calls to dismiss the claim for monetary compensation, arguing the amount is inconsistent with presented evidence and that discrimination regarding on-reserve funding is not ongoing.

“This is beyond unacceptable,” said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a statement. “The Government of Canada is once again preparing to fight First Nations children in court. To appeal this CHRT ruling, which was meant to provide a measure of justice for First Nations children in care, is hurtful and unjust.”

How can a system that is so clearly broken be fixed? Auger says the Spirit Bear plan will cover the bases.

“The parliamentary budget officer would do a full costing of where the inequalities and shortfalls are,” explained Auger. “Then all the governmental departments that work with First Nations kids would have that reform so we’re no longer dealing with these colonial policies – just making sure First Nations kids have the same opportunities as all others in the country.”

Auger suggested the system often mistakes housing issues or poverty for parental neglect, the top reason First Nations children are removed from their families. In other cases, social workers might see empty cupboards without realizing the community eats together.

By holistically investigating embedded discriminatory practices, governments and First Nations could co-develop the necessary solutions. Meanwhile, another forest creature might be a more appropriate metaphor for their movement towards reconciliation.

“Cindy would refer to it as mosquito advocacy,” said Auger. “Think of how mosquitoes create a buzz and work together. Our movement is not always like roaring thunder – more quiet victories. We continue to see change building and more people joining the cause.”

Though disappointed by the federal appeal to tribunal ruling, the Caring Society will continue to push for action until there is finally justice for First Nations children.

“They won’t have a choice,” said Auger. “We’ll be those mosquitoes buzzing around them.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.