Her advocacy for the rights of Canada’s First Nations children may have attracted surveillance from her government, but Cindy Blackstock remains steadfast in her vision for equality, no matter the personal cost. By Camille Howard.
(This article first appeared in Rattler 117, published by Community Child Care Co-operative (NSW). To purchase a copy, go to: www.ccccnsw.org.au/shop)
Mosquito advocacy. If reading this phrase conjures up something annoying, irritating and infectious, you have understood Cindy Blackstock’s key advocacy tool for her work on behalf of First Nations children in Canada.
As an advocate for children for many years, Blackstock fights the inequalities Canada’s First Nations children face every day.
In her role as executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, she fights for the rights of all First Nations children to grow up with their families, receive quality education, be healthy and to be proud of their heritage.
It’s a fight she and her organisation took to the Canadian government, filing a human rights claim against the government for racial discrimination. The move not only cost her organisation its funding, it also cost Blackstock her personal privacy.
But before it came to this, Blackstock’s advocacy followed the usual pattern: meeting with relevant government representatives, sharing research about inequities faced by First Nations children, pleading their case, sharing solutions and waiting for the government to enact change.
Government change proved to be a long time coming, so Blackstock decided she needed to change.
The turning point came after a trip to India, where Blackstock visited a museum at the former home of Mahatma Ghandi. After taking a quick tour, she found herself in the garden with a maintenance worker. When he asked her about what she did for a living, he listened while she described her battles with the government to create change for First Nations children.
Then he told her she had it wrong. As Gandhi’s work teaches, he explained, governments don’t make change, they react to change.
Returning to Canada, Blackstock realised she had to come up with a way to make enough noise and involve enough people to ensure the government couldn’t ignore the issues any more; they would have to react to the demands of the people.
Creating a buzz
Growing up in Northern British Columbia, Blackstock recalls the massive mosquitos that annoyed her outdoors. “I spent my whole childhood sitting in the smoke of the campfire, moving my [seat] to try to avoid these things,” she says.
Blackstock thought about how this small insect could take on something much larger and affect change.
“So I started to really unpack what they do. Number one, they are focused and targeted; they know exactly what they want. They’re not messing around wringing their hands thinking ‘should we do education or early childcare or child welfare’.
“Second, they’re infectious. They understand that broad based change is about social movements, and they need to infect others in order to leave the legacy.”
And mosquitos swarm. “You may have one mosquito in your tent but there are 100,000 of them flying around outside waiting for you.”
Then there’s the very irritating buzz. “They will irritate you to get what they want. And they’re persistent, they don’t give up.” For advocates, this buzz is generated through social media, traditional media, events and using great storytellers to carry the message.
“And in the end,” Blackstock says, “some of them will bite.”
But this ‘bite’, she explains, is something that’s peaceful and respectful. “So the whole thing is enveloped in the types of examples I want to set for children.”
And this is why going to a Caring Society event is a joyful experience. “Even though we’re sitting outside parliament and the kids are reading letters to the Prime Minister, you’ll find them blowing bubbles and singing songs because we’re celebrating a change that we’re going to be making in the country.”
Free ways to make change
Many First Nations families have low incomes, and because they are the ones experiencing the hardship most, Blackstock says they are the most motivated to be a part of the solution. Which is why the Caring Society ensures the support it asks of people doesn’t depend on financial ability.
“A lot of charities in my country ask the public to get involved by making a donation. [But] that’s not asking me to get involved, that’s asking my wallet to get involved,” she explains.
Instead, the Caring Society offers free ways to make change, where individuals and organisations are encouraged to show their support by signing up to campaigns, writing letters to politicians, and raising awareness through their own networks.
One of the Caring Society’s most successful campaigns, in terms of public engagement, is the I Am Witness campaign. This involved asking Canadians of all ages and ethnicities to bear witness to the case against the Canadian government and make up their own mind about the government’s actions.
All relevant documents and reports from both sides of the court case, as well as video transcripts, were uploaded online, with almost 14,500 individuals and organisations signed up to be witnesses. Some children also attended court proceedings and posted witness reflections, either in drawings, videos or articles that they had written. (Check them out at www.fnwitness.ca)
Much of Blackstock’s advocacy centres on putting children’s needs first. This means giving children and young people a voice in the issues that directly affect them, as they do in I Am Witness.
It also means allowing the children to take charge of how they deliver their messages. A children’s committee decides on what events they are going to do, and these events have one rule: no adults talk.
“So imagine if we had an early childhood event where only the kids got to talk. They organise the event and only they get to talk about inequality and about the social justice efforts they’re taking.”
Blackstock acknowledges it can be difficult to stand back and let the children take charge, especially with the risk of children disagreeing with the Caring Society’s message. “[But] it’s coming from someone who has thought about it and decided that’s the way that they think,” she says. “I would rather raise a generation of children who are critical thinkers than a bunch of blind pen points who are walking along.”
The children also worked with Blackstock to create a set of guidelines, or rules of engagement, for organisations to engage with young people, to hold the organisations accountable. The key, she says, is to engage with children who are enthusiastic about the topic you’re talking about. “Don’t just corral a bunch of teenagers and five-year-olds and say you’ve done your bit.
“When we started the work of actually engaging children themselves there was so many people saying it could not be done: ‘you can’t involve four-year-olds in this, parents will get upset, there’s going to be fireworks all over the place’. That didn’t happen.”
But as those who work with young people know, children have an inherent low tolerance for inequality; it’s the adults who need to question why we have a tolerance for it. “Why do we put up with it? Why do we make excuses for it? When we say we’re too afraid to speak up, how can we possibly say that with any credibility when we’re encouraging little children who are being bullied to have the moral courage to speak up in those circumstances, while we’re hiding under the table.”
And if her nation is serious about reconciliation, it means not saying sorry twice. “I want to raise a generation of kids, Aboriginal children, who feel proud and honoured to be who they are and who have grown up in friendship to respect the difference of other people, and that Aboriginal children do not have to recover from their childhoods. And I want the non-Aboriginal children to be equally proud of their heritage and where they come from, and to know and respect the lands of which they are now calling home and to never have to grow to say ‘I’m sorry’.”