In 2007, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint against Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, accusing it of discrimination. They argued that the family and child support services made available to First Nations children on reserves and in Yukon were underfunded and inferior to those offered to other Canadian children. Indigenous children were also six to eight times more likely to be placed in foster care—more often than not in non-Native homes. This situation was reminiscent of the assimilation and trauma caused by residential schools, which was also widely discussed during the trial.
Including the many appeals, the legal process spanned nine long years before finally ending in victory for the plaintiffs in 2016. We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice gives a voice to those involved in this legal battle, notably Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the FNCFCSC, who endured government spying and retaliation as a result of her central role in the trial. Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin guides us through the intricacies of the legal system while never losing sight of the real issues at stake: the welfare of children and the survival of Indigenous cultures.
In 2007, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint against Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, accusing it of discrimination. They argued that family and child support services made available to First Nations children on reserves and in Yukon were underfunded and inferior to those offered to other Canadian children. The legal process that followed spanned a period of more than nine years and ended in victory for the plaintiffs in 2016. We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, by Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, documents this unknown and shameful chapter in Canadian politics.
The complaint filed in 2007 dealt with Section 5 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. It denounced the gaps in services made available to First Nations children compared to other Canadian children, arguing these inequalities were based solely on the children’s origins. Indigenous children were also six to eight times more likely to be placed in foster care, more often than not in non-Native homes. The complainants alleged that this situation was not unlike the assimilation and trauma caused by residential schools—a topic that was also discussed during the trial.
The complainants further argued that the funding formula for services for Indigenous children living on reserves and in Yukon was based on arbitrary figures that were not only insufficient but had little to do with the real and specific needs of reserves. This was in addition to the jurisdictional disputes provincial and federal levels were frequently embroiled in, and which were causing services to be delayed or even cancelled. A case in point raised during the trial was the death of Jordan River Anderson, a Cree baby who died in the hospital while the Manitoba and Canadian governments negotiated who would pay for his at-home care. In Jordan’s honour, the House of Commons unanimously adopted “Jordan’s Principle” in 2007 to resolve such jurisdictional disputes in the future.
Although Canada’s Auditor General addressed these issues in her 2008 report, a number of Indigenous groups felt her recommendations were being inadequately implemented—notably, the federal government’s new program targeting prevention.
The legal action taken by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCSC) and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) dragged on for nine long years. “This may not be that long in terms of justice, but it certainly is to families and children,” laments Denise Stonefish, Deputy Grand Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians.
The trial’s sluggish pace was caused by a number of factors. The Canadian government objected to the presence of the Chiefs of Ontario and Amnesty International as interested parties. It also made several attempts to have the complaint dismissed, arguing, among other things, the lack of a comparison group for Indigenous children. This argument was accepted in 2011 but subsequently rejected by the Federal Court a year later. Canada’s Attorney General also belatedly disclosed tens of thousands of documents during the trial, creating further delays.
According to Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the FNCFCSC, the federal government spent more than $3 million trying to have the case dismissed. Dr. Blackstock, a central figure in the trial, was also a victim of government spying and retaliation. In June 2015, the government was ordered to pay her $20,000 in damages for “pain and suffering.”
In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal sided with the FNCFCSC and the AFN, ordering Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada to end its discriminatory practices and to reform its program.
We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice gives a voice to both those who work in child services across Canada and those involved in this legal saga—beginning with Blackstock herself, who is determined to see things change. “I want this generation of children to know one thing: that we love them enough to fight for them,” she says. “And if it means sacrificing this organization or my job for it, then so be it.”
Obomsawin’s documentary also allows people like Chief Robert Joseph and Derald Dubois to share their stories about growing up in residential schools, which, as the tribunal declared, were the premise for the government’s current discriminatory practices. “There has to be a better way of helping children than by tearing their families apart,” says Mr. Dubois, who now works for one of Saskatchewan’s child and family services agencies.
As Obomsawin guides us through the intricacies of the legal system, she never loses sight of the real issues at stake: the welfare of children and the survival of Indigenous cultures.
Director / Writer
René Sioui Labelle
Michel Dubeau – Flutes, Dudük
Lauren Bélec – Guitars
Normand Guilbeault – Double Bass
Dominique Tremblay – Violin-Alto
Music & Voice Recording
Graphic Design & Titles
Digital Editing Technicians
Senior Production Coordinators
Leslie Anne Poyntz
The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives
APTN Aboriginal’s People Television Network
Winnipeg Free Press
CBC Archive Sales/Archives Radio-Canada
Phyllis Grant – “Hand in Hand” Artwork
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada – Wen:De Report
House of Commons Footage
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution – “Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch at Txaxis (Fort Rupert), 1894 – photo by O.C.Hastings
Gilford Bighouse – photo by Ruth Lyall
Courtesy of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
“IN THE LAND OF HEAD HUNTERS”, Courtesy of Milestone Film and Video
Royal BC Museum and Archives
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Gwa’wina Dancers, Courtesy of U’Mista Cultural Center
Oliver P. Anderson, Kwakiutl Woman Named Cla-lish, Fort Rupert, British Columbia, 1899
Portland Art Museum. Gift of Peter and Mary Kirschner
The General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada
Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan
United Church Archives, Toronto.
Yukon Archives, Anglican Church, Diocese of Yukon Fonds
Library and Archives Canada
Peter Henderson Bryce, Secretary Provincial Board of Health for Ontario
“Schools Aid White Plague” – Material republished with the express permission of: Ottawa Evening Citizen, a division of Postmedia Network Inc
National Film Board of Canada Stockshots
“A National Crime” Book by Dr. John Milloy
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate
Special Thanks to:
Canadian Human Rights Tribunal
Federal Court of Appeal
Jordan River Anderson’s Family
Frankie Dubois Family
Dr. Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief
Gwawaenuk First Nation