Community Scholar devoted to equality for First Nations kids

Cindy Blackstock honoured for advocacy and academic work to seek better-funded services for Aboriginal children and families.

(Edmonton) Growing up in the rugged bush of northern British Columbia as a First Nations girl, Cindy Blackstock felt compelled by a sense of social justice to help children-something that has become her life's work.

"The residential school system was still operating as I was growing up, and I saw how unjust the stereotypes were of Aboriginal Peoples. It seemed in such contradiction to what Canada said it stood for," Blackstock remembers.

As a voice for First Nations children, Blackstock is a determined advocate whose academic work at the University of Alberta is challenging systemic inequality and seeking better-funded services for Aboriginal youngsters and their families.

An associate professor based in the Faculty of Extension since 2011 and a child welfare worker for more than 25 years, Blackstock heads the U of A's First Nations Children's Action Research and Education Service (FN CARES), a joint partnership with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

Through FN CARES, she has drawn attention to issues of poverty, poor housing and substance abuse related to residential school abuse that affect First Nations children and their families, and is working to compel the federal government to provide culturally appropriate and equitable services. She's also developed several child-centred initiatives that are helping improve access to education and other public services.

Bringing scholarship to the community

For her tireless commitment, Blackstock is receiving the 2014 UAlberta Community Scholar Award, as part of the U of A Community Connections Awards.

The award recognizes faculty members who not only excel in scholarship, but also bring it into the community through volunteer work, public speaking, school visits and media interviews. They are committed to translating their area of expertise to the everyday citizen and in doing so, demonstrate the U of A's commitment to community scholarship.

Blackstock first studied the hard sciences, but she found it wasn't a fit. "I'm a social girl, so I moved into psychology." Armed with a newly minted bachelor's degree, she took a job as a child protection worker in B.C. and later worked with the federal government to document inequalities and find evidence-based solutions for First Nations youngsters caught up in the child welfare system.

"Along the way I came to understand that the things putting First Nations children at risk were not primarily sourced in the family, but rather in a system that was not responsive to risk factors in these families."

Blackstock was determined to get to the root cause of the issue, devoting the rest of her career to that end. "My mom gave me a great piece of advice. When you come across a complex problem, look for the obvious answer. No one does. When I looked at the overrepresentation of First Nations children in the system, it wasn't about a better form of program, it was about addressing discrimination that lies at the root of the problems."

"Research is part of the change mechanism. Scholarship is also about going out of the faculty and learning for ourselves, from what community members tell us."

As a U of A scholar, Blackstock's work is deeply rooted in community. Besides working with leading researchers to find evidence-based solutions, she works with Aboriginal groups such as the Assembly of First Nations and consults with elders and families.

"Research is part of the change mechanism. Scholarship is also about going out of the faculty and learning for ourselves, from what community members tell us. As academics, we should see the world as they define it and be in service of the goals they want to achieve. When you talk to people, they already have the solutions that make sense. They often just need our help to have those solutions implemented."

"It is an honour to work with community members towards positive change."

During her career, Blackstock has also acted as an expert adviser to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and UNICEF, and delivered more than 200 talks around the world. Her dedication has garnered many awards including recognition from the Nobel Women's Initiative as one of world's leading female activists.

Over the years, Blackstock's dogged work through the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, through FN CARES and in the community has resulted in several initiatives aimed at securing stronger rights for Aboriginal youth, such as Jordan's Principle, passed in the House of Commons in 2007 to cut red tape impeding health services for First Nations children in need. Touchstones of Hope, a set of principles to guide culturally appropriate and equitable child welfare services, was developed and is used in First Nations communities across Canada and in the United States.

More recently, Blackstock testified before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on First Nations child welfare, to draw attention to the struggle of contemporary First Nations children for equality and bring about change from government. The tribunal is expected to hand down a ruling in early 2015.

"As a country we have to come to terms with whether we believe in equality or not. If we can't bring ourselves to treat children equally, what do we have that we can be proud of as Canadians?"

Blackstock hopes that when her life's work is done, systemic inequalities in policy "are no longer tolerated in the Canadian consciousness by any government that has power. Doing that will set Canada free, too. 'Canada' is a First Nations word that means 'village'-and it can finally become that."