The most meaningful cases a lawyer can take are those that are paid with an ample supply of brownies and cookies. To truly transform the law into justice, graduates of Osgoode Hall Law School were encouraged to add some love, compassion, a little glitter and a teddy bear to their legal work. That message was delivered to graduates of Osgoode Hall Law School by First Nations children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock during convocation ceremonies on June 23.
A member of the Gitxsan First Nation, Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and a professor at McGill University School of Social Work. She has more than 30 years of social work experience in child protection and Indigenous children’s rights with a focus on documenting and addressing the systemic inequalities experienced by First Nations children, youth and families today.
As part of her work, Blackstock engages the public, and particularly children, to learn about Canada’s history in ways that prepare them to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Blackstock is most well known for her role in a landmark 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision that found the Government of Canada’s flawed and inequitable provision of child welfare services and failure to ensure First Nations children could access all other government services on the same terms as other children, was discriminatory. In 2011, she was awarded the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (Public Policy) and was named an honorary witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was her experience with the 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that formed the basis for her convocation address to graduates. She was at York University to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree. As part of the ceremony, Blackstock’s companion, Spirit Bear, a stuffed teddy bear dressed in glitter and convocation robes, was made an honorary “Bearrister” of the law by Osgoode Hall Law School Dean Lorne Sossin.
Spirit Bear, Blackstock said, represents all of the non-Indigenous children who may not be experts in law and politics but are experts in love and fairness. Those children, she said, offered their support during her challenge of Canada’s flawed approach to providing services to Indigenous children, including health care, social supports, and more.
What started as a trickle of young people into the courtroom where she spent day after day challenging the federal government to make the law right, turned into a flood. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, united in the belief that every young person and child should be treated fairly and have access to the same supports and medical services, arrived to offer their support to Blackstock and Spirit Bear in their challenge.
“Every courtroom should have a teddy bear and every court room should have some glitter because the law is important, it is the architecture of our society,” said Blackstock, when speaking about what she learned from the experience, “but laws without love can be unjust and they can be harmful. Laws without compassion can be unthoughtful and can be regressive.”
When laws have compassion, said Blackstock, there is great progress in the country. Laws based in compassion brought forward Canada’s system of universal medical care.
“When laws are developed without love, we see things like The Indian Act. We see a piece of legislation that removed First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families, from places where they were loved into places that too often had no teddy bears,” said Blackstock. “We have seen laws create the Indian Act that not only regulates who is a First Nations person in this country, but regulates all aspects of their lives. Laws without love will never be justice. Unjust laws are always used to quash dissent from those who believe that what is legal is not always just.”
One of the most important things in their legal toolkit, she told grads, is what their families have given them. “Those gifts are your values and the moral courage to defend those values because you do not know who your client is,” she said, “it could be a teddy bear or it could be someone who is asking you to do something that is unjust.
“Most of us, including you and me, acquaint courts with going to jail or getting a divorce, neither are on our wish list and we do everything we can to stay out of courtrooms, but somehow, life’s path took Spirit Bear and me into a highly contested legal dispute against the government of Canada. What was at question was whether in 2007, First Nations children should get the same opportunities to grow up with their families and access to the same level of public service that every other kid takes for granted,” she said.
The most surprising aspect of the case, said Blackstock, was the fact that she even had to go to court. In the long legal battle that followed, the federal government continually sought “clarity” on its responsibilities to Indigenous children. Gradually word spread about what Blackstock was trying to do and a team of lawyers, who were paid in brownies and cookies, got to work on the case and were successful.
Since the ruling, the federal government has been found in non-compliance and the legal battle continues. But for Blackstock, the support of children, their love for each other and sense of justice, continues give her strength to keep fighting. “Reconciliation is when all of us stand up and recognize that an injustice against any child is an injustice against us all,” she said.
Her wish for Canada’s 150th birthday, she said, is that Canadians are able to raise a generation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who never have to recover from their childhoods and a generation of non-Indigenous children who never have to say they are sorry.
“Graduates, I hate to tell you this but the most important cases in your lives are paid only in brownies and cookies. Those are the ones that will change the world for the better,” she said. “So bring a teddy bear wherever you go, because the law is only the law and it can only become justice with love, compassion, a teddy bear and some glitter.”