The time for first steps is over: Doing better for all young children

Children have taught me the most important lessons about advocacy’ says DR CINDY BLACKSTOCK. They are ‘experts in love and fairness’ yet ‘we often view children in ways that reduce their dignity and development’. Dr Blackstock, an international keynote speaker at the 2018 ECA National Conference in Sydney (19–22 September), spoke with ECA about moral courage and early childhood educators, her 25 years of advocating for First Nations young children in Canada and what we can do better for children. 

Early Childhood Australia (ECA): You have been advocating for children’s interests for more than 25 years. What are the top issues you are working on in 2018? Are you surprised that we still have to be advocates for young children?

Dr Cindy Blackstock: Culturally based equity for First Nations children, youth and families was, and remains, the focus of my work. Canada continues to provide less funding for First Nations children across almost every life domain, despite mounting legal orders and long-standing reports urging equity in public service provision. I remember trying to explain what I do to my young nephew. No matter how I explained it to him, and no matter what age he was at, he could not understand why anybody would have to fight with the government to get them to treat all children fairly. He is in his 20s now and still does not understand, and neither do I, other than to say racism is most dangerous when it is normalised and notions of incremental equality are accepted.

ECA: What has changed during the period you’ve been advocating for children? Are the areas we need to focus on, or the strategies we have to use, changing? Do you think the task of advocacy for children’s interests is becoming harder?

Blackstock: Children have taught me the most important lessons about advocacy. You need to trust them enough to give them age-appropriate information about current injustices, encourage critical thinking and support them in participating in peaceful social justice actions. Children are experts in love and fairness and they know how to do reconciliation. This is why early years educators can make such a difference by recognising that even very young children can be encouraged to use love and fairness in their dealings with each other and the world around them.

Thanks to teachers across Canada being willing to engage with our equity work, a new generation of Canadians is growing up knowing about the injustices and doing something about them. In the long-term, true and meaningful reconciliation requires a new generation of First Nations, Metis and Inuit children to grow up so they never have to recover from their childhoods, and a generation of non-Indigenous children never having to say they are sorry. It is starting to happen.

I also want to speak about moral courage. Courage is not a value in and of itself—rather it is an activator of values. As adults we have a duty to be morally courageous in standing up against child rights violations in our communities and around the globe. Unfortunately, courage is rarely taught in any of the child-serving professions and is something that is often left for individuals to foster, and too many give way to the pressures to be silent and still. Lessons on moral courage and institutional reforms to support it are absolutely required in legislation, policy and practice affecting children and youth.

ECA: You have been described as a ‘fierce advocate’ for First Nations children and you’ve even taken the government to court to secure outcomes for children. How can educators who are ‘in the room’ speak up for the best interests of children—in other words, what does ‘everyday advocacy’ look like?

Blackstock: It means having the moral courage to truly put the children first in everything you do.

An Elder once told us ‘[N]ever fall in love with the Caring Society and never fall in love with your business card. Only fall in love with the children because there will come a time when you may have to sacrifice both those things for them.’ He was right. When we, along with the Assembly of First Nations, filed the case against Canada in 2007, we lost our entire government core funding within 30 days, and lost all government project funding shortly after. Yet, even when we faced closure, I knew that filing the case was the right thing to do and in fact it was the only thing to do if we truly were about putting children first. As it turned out, the community was so uplifted by the example we set that they began donating in record levels and today we are completely independent of government funding.

ECA: When you were asked for advice to give younger or newer activists you said: ‘No. 1, identify your values and develop the moral courage to defend them’. The article also said you are ‘determined to live in concert with cultural values—including integrity, service and courage—passed down from [your] parents and grandparents’ (www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/how-social-worker-and-activist-cindy-blackstock-does-self-care/article33998628/).Can you explain the importance of the values of integrity, service and courage to you and perhaps give an example of when you have drawn on your courage to defend your values?

Blackstock: We teach codes of ethics but don’t equip people with the moral courage to stand up for them when faced with a personal or professional risk, and we certainly rarely develop systems that support people who are insubordinate to unethical ideas or practices. On the contrary, too many organisations, including those serving children, reward conformity and actively dissuade advocacy. The rising tide of intolerance around the world means effective and peaceful social justice advocacy for children is more important than ever, and as adults working with children, we must know what our values are and be prepared to courageously sacrifice for children when our time comes. Bottom line is that our most important job as adults is to stand up for kids, especially when it is scary.

In addition to the funding cuts, I also experienced what the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal would later call ‘wilful and reckless’ retaliation by the Canadian Government for filing the complaint. This involved surveillance of my personal and public social media, events and movements by public officials with the aim of discrediting the complaint and getting it dismissed on frivolous or vexatious grounds. It is a long story, but I was able to get a large volume of government records documenting their retaliatory efforts, which I eventually made public (although I redacted the public servants’ names to protect their privacy). It was scary and it was intimidating, but I knew that what I was experiencing was nothing compared to the undertow the compound inequalities in public services had on the children, so I decided to respond in a way that would bring additional attention to the children’s claims and I vowed not to allow the government to silence me or others. I was eventually awarded $20 000 in damages, which I donated to children’s causes.

ECA: The tough times in child protection and in fighting for justice for Indigenous children can be very grim. You are described as having ‘rock-solid resilience’, which you put down to taking care of yourself ‘every single day’. How do you restore yourself every day, keep perspective and keep professional in order to keep going?

Blackstock: Living with integrity is the best self-care you can give yourself. The bottom line is that although there are short term pay-offs for being silent and demure in the face of injustice, the long-term effect is an erosion of your dignity and the dignity of others.

Fostering the moral courage to stand up in the face of social justice can have significant draw backs in the short term, but in the long term you sleep better knowing you did the right thing. I am also a big fan of Cheezies (a Canadian fast food snack—you have to try them) and bath bombs!

ECA: Recently a local government community in Canada (Vancouver Island in British Columbia) passed a by-law banning children from playing in its streets (https://globalnews.ca/news/4325538/bc-neighbourhood-ban-children-play-street/). The original intent was said to be for safety, but the result is that children, even under supervision, can no longer use the roadways for outdoor activities such as play, chalking or riding bicycles. It caused anguish and outrage from some of the neighbourhood families. Children used to be ‘seen and not heard’, now perhaps they are going to be ‘not seen’ too. Do you think this is part of a trend in Canada (or more globally) and what actions can address or reverse this?

Blackstock: I think we often view children in ways that reduce their dignity and development. In some ways, the view that children are somehow less ‘human’ and thus less worthy of the full enjoyment of ‘human rights’ is similar to that of colonialism. While developmental considerations are vital for children, the view that they are only citizens when they are adults is concerning. In many First Nations cultures, children are viewed as teachers because they are the closest to the ancestors. They remind adults of the importance of love, caring, fairness and imagination. These are gifts that the world is in desperate need of now, and if we continue to minimise children’s knowledge, abilities and contributions we diminish our collective humanity.

ECA: Canada and Australia have some striking similarities. They are both nations formed in post-colonial societies linked with the British Empire and Commonwealth, and both have centres of population strung across large interior wilderness areas, meaning that distance, remoteness and isolation play a part in shaping connections, delivering services, and fostering individuals and communities. Both countries are still coming to terms with their treatment of their First Nations Peoples. What can we learn from each other’s mistakes and progress?

Blackstock: I don’t consider Canada or Australia to be post-colonial states, as neither has fully learned from their colonial histories in ways that fully prepare them to acknowledge and address ongoing colonial actions. That said, there are significant shared learning opportunities as both countries have a rich diversity of First Peoples, similar colonial histories (residential schools in Canada and the Stolen Generations in Australia) and have made progress in different ways to address contemporary colonial injustices. One of the free reconciliation activities that I will share during the [keynote presentation] talk called ‘Have a Heart Day’ was actually inspired by National Aboriginal Children’s Day in Australia. I think our shared challenge and opportunity is denormalising the discrimination and ongoing colonialism in our countries in ways that prepare a new generation to make more meaningful progress on reconciliation.

ECA: Early Childhood Australia’s commitment is that ‘Every young child is thriving and learning’. What should our focus be in order to lift that vision for First Nations children and respond to their needs?

Blackstock: When I travel to Australia, I see a similar pattern to Canada. The ongoing disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families can be largely attributed to the lack of implementation of solutions proposed by Indigenous peoples (often repeatedly) versus a lack of answers. In both countries we must ‘do better for children when we know better—and we know better’.

ECA: We love your quote: ‘Reconciliation means not saying sorry twice’. A recent Australian national radio podcast examined truth and reconciliation processes around the world, featuring US researcher Charlotte Lloyd and CEO of Reconciliation Australia, Karen Mundine (www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/saturdayextra/reconciliation-action-plans/9991362). The US researcher said that Australia was unusual in including social equity as part of its approaches to reconciliation.How does the work of championing the rights of First Nations children fit with a countrys reconciliation?  

Blackstock: If you can’t treat First Nations children fairly there is no reconciliation, and in fact, it puts at question the humanity of the nation as a whole. There is simply no excuse for continuing to discriminate against Indigenous children because they are Indigenous and then legitimising slow progress by saying you are making ‘good first steps’. Canada has known about the inequalities facing First Nations children for at least 111 years—time for first steps is long past. The time for full equity is now.

ECA: Do you think reconciliation is necessarily about justice?

Blackstock: Justice is a pre-condition for reconciliation. As an Elder once told me, when you make a mistake, your first duty is to learn about the harm from those you have injured, remediate the harm and reform yourself so the mistake is not repeated, and then to apologise. I think in both countries, we have missed the learning and justice steps in reconciliation. It is not enough to lament the harms of the past while repeating them in the present.

ECA: Finally, what are your ‘high hopes’ for your keynote address and workshop; that is, what would you most want participants to take away from your sessions at the ECA conference?

Blackstock: That justice is easier than injustice, and moral courage is easier than moral cowardice, and that every child should enjoy the dignity of knowing they can make the world a better place for themselves and for others.


Dr Cindy Blackstock is a child protection expert, author, speaker and advocate for Indigenous children’s rights and Executive Director, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Dr Blackstock is a member of Canada’s Gitxsan First Nation and her work has been recognised by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Indspire, Front Line Defenders and many others. Dr Cindy Blackstock will be an international keynote speaker at ECA’s 2018 National Conference in Sydney 19-22 September. Click here to learn more or simply click here to Book Now

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Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

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