'A mountain of power': The impact of Cindy Blackstock

Cindy Blackstock grew up in the huckleberry fields of Northern B.C. When she was a kid, she wanted an Easy-Bake Oven, but instead she got a book of poetry, a gift from an aunt. 

In that book was Patrick Overton’s poem Faith. It’s a poem that guided Blackstock, decades ago, when she first understood that someone needed to address the inequalities faced by Indigenous children and families in Canada. She didn’t realize until later that someone would be her. 

She recalled her favourite passage of the poem. 

“[Faith is knowing] there will be something solid [for you] to stand [upon], or you will be taught to fly,” Blackstock remembered.

Blackstock sat down with Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild to talk about overcoming the racism she faced as a child, being spied on by the Canadian government, and how one little boy inspires her to keep going. But most importantly, how one person can ignite meaningful, dramatic change. 

‘Relentless moral voice’

Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, the national organization that she co-founded. She is also a professor at McGill University’s school of social work.

She has been described as “Canada’s ‘relentless moral voice’ for First Nations equality.” She has worked for decades as a tireless champion for the rights of Indigenous children and their families. 

READ: Ottawa ordered to compensate First Nations children impacted by on-reserve child welfare system

Blackstock first stepped onto the national stage when she helped win a landmark human rights challenge against the Government of Canada.

Cindy Blackstock as a young girl wanted an Easy-Bake Oven. Instead, she got a book of poetry that forever shaped her life. (Provided by Cindy Blackstock. )

Her advocacy has resulted in a wide range of services now being provided to Indigenous children, youth and families. 

‘Winning with dignity’

Acclaimed Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin had been following Blackstock’s work from afar before deciding to ask her if she wanted to be a part of a documentary.

What resulted was Obomsawin’s film, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice. 

READ: Alanis Obomsawin documents Cindy Blackstock’s fight for equality for Aboriginal children

“Families who are in trouble — who did they go to? They go to Cindy Blackstock,” Obomsawin said.

“She loves children, and she’ll do anything for them.” 

It’s a force that I have not seen before.– Alanis Obomsawin

While watching Blackstock’s tireless work from afar, Obomsawin remembered Blackstock facing a particularly tough line of questioning.

“The person who was questioning [Blackstock] really was trying to diminish her, to humiliate her, to take away her dignity,” Obomsawin said.

“But you can’t do that with Cindy Blackstock.” 

Obomsawin was worried about Blackstock after seeing this exchange in court, and she asked her if she was all right. Blackstock’s reply has stuck with Obomsawin.

Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is forever impressed by the work of Blackstock. “She’s just a mountain of power,” Obomsawin says. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

“If they want to treat me like that, then you can just see how they’re treating me,” Obomsawin recalled Blackstock saying. “I’m not gonna get on that level.”

That response, Obomsawin said, is a perfect example of who Blackstock is.

“She’s always winning with dignity, and she stands there with her head high,” Obomsawin said. “She’s just a mountain of power.

“It’s a force that I have not seen before … we are very lucky to have her in our life. I just hope she stays for a very long time.”

‘Be a hero for kids’

When Blackstock thinks about the future, she has hope. She sees things changing for the better, and that’s what keeps her motivated. 

“If we can raise a generation of First Nations kids who never have to recover from their childhoods, and a generation of non-Indigenous children who never have to say they’re sorry, then I think we have made a major step in co-creating a society that our ancestors always dreamed of, and that our great-great-great grandchildren would be proud of,” she said.

Rosanna Deerchild asking Spirit Bear (and Cindy Blackstock) the important questions at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

Building of community, working together, and having faith is what creates change, explained Blackstock. 

“It’ll just remain a dream unless all of us act,” she said.

“Every one of us has to do what I did and that is to kick yourself over that line where life leads into darkness and realize that you have to be a hero for kids.” 

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