Scholar, activist and child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock figures academia needs to hire “a lot more people who are willing to get into trouble.”
“Academia and activism should co-exist,” says Dr. Blackstock, a professor in McGill University’s school of social work. “Academic freedom provides us with a space to stand in the wings of discrimination in a way that’s not available to other people.”
No stranger to trouble, one could argue Dr. Blackstock goes looking for it. Nationally and internationally renowned for her advocacy work for the rights of Indigenous children, she is also the co-founder and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
In 2007, the Caring Society, led by Dr. Blackstock, and the Assembly of First Nations jointly filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against the federal government for underfunding welfare services for First Nations children living on reserve. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed with the complainants, later ordering the government to offer compensation to the affected children and their families.
“Let’s do something and express ourselves in ways people can actually understand. And listen to the lived experience, get behind the community.”
While a final settlement is still being negotiated, the landmark decision should result in First Nations children and their families collectively receiving billions of dollars. The case also helped to bring considerable attention to the discrimination embedded in the government’s failure to provide adequate health care, education and other services for on-reserve Indigenous children.
“We’re in a very privileged space to do this kind of activism,” Dr. Blackstock points out. She urges academics to move away from the “usual, antiquated notions of knowledge-transfer,” such as presenting a poster or giving a talk at a conference. She says that work is important, but it’s not enough.
“Don’t just publish another paper; eighty-five per cent of journal articles don’t get read,” she estimates. “Let’s do something and express ourselves in ways people can actually understand. And listen to the lived experience, get behind the community.”
A member of the Gitxsan First Nation in British Columbia, Dr. Blackstock says her approach to academia has been “very atypical” from a young age.
As a child, she says her family moved all over northern B.C., following the fire seasons and her father’s job with the forestry service. She says she was determined to go to university mostly because “no one thought I could.”
“As a little girl, I heard about this place called university and really wanted to go to the University of British Columbia. It was nothing more material than that,” she recalls. “After that, in my three post-graduate degrees, I wasn’t taking them to be something. I was doing them to learn more.”
Dr. Blackstock did go to UBC, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree. Two master’s degrees followed – one in management from McGill University and another in jurisprudence in children’s law and policy from Chicago’s Loyola University – then a PhD in social work from the University of Toronto.
She says she never worried about tenure or promotion, or about “populating my CV,” and sees her academic work as “a tool in the public service to do my duty to First Nations children. It’s not the end in itself.” In fact, she signed up for the master’s in jurisprudence to better understand the intricacies of the human rights case she helped to launch. And in her research today, Dr. Blackstock continues to explore Indigenous theory as well as the identification and remediation of structural inequalities affecting First Nations children, youth and families.
Recent accolades and appointments
As the gold medal winner of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s 2022 Impact Awards – the highest honour the research council bestows – Dr. Blackstock acknowledges that SSHRC funding has been “absolutely key” in allowing her to work across numerous disciplines.
“I didn’t go into one discipline all the way to the top,” she notes. “I appreciate there are some merits to doing that, but I wish there were more of us jumping all over the place.”
However, she also feels there should be more funding available for the application of social sciences and humanities research. “We owe a duty to the public to implement the evidence we produce,” she says.
“One of the key elements of our case against the Government of Canada regarding First Nations kids is you look back over 100 years there’s been clear, credible documentation of the unequal public service funding from the federal government to First Nations kids and the resulting deaths and harms to children,” she says. This research that Dr. Blackstock and her colleagues gathered, in part with the support of SSHRC funding, eventually became evidence that the Caring Society brought against the government during the human rights case.
Also in 2022, Dr. Blackstock was named inaugural chancellor to NOSM University, Canada’s first independent medical university. Dr. Blackstock’s moral courage, tenacity and integrity embodies the university’s values and its unique social accountability mandate, says Sarita Verma, NOSM’s president, vice-chancellor, dean and CEO.
“I can’t think of a better person for us,” she adds. “If you look at her work with the Caring Society, if you look at her advocacy and legal actions, that’s the kind of thinking we hope she will inspire. She’s a woman who gets things done.”
Dr. Blackstock says her appointment to NOSM, a school that was designed to primarily serve the Indigenous, francophone, rural and remote communities of northern Ontario, “is really about ensuring that I do my small part to support physicians working in northern communities so that people have access to health care.”
However, she also wants to see more emphasis at Canadian universities on teaching students about advocacy: how to do it and how to continue doing it throughout their careers.
“So often we get students in social work and law who say they are doing advocacy, but we don’t train them, and we don’t teach them about the courage it takes to do it,” she says. “Where the academic milieu does young academics a disservice is [that] young academics are so focussed on filling up their CV to get tenure and promotion, they’re doing all kinds of stuff that doesn’t really knit together.”