"At some point, every one of us will come across an opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves," says Cindy Blackstock (MJ '15), executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. "When that moment comes, we never feel prepared for it, smart enough for it, the best person for it. But do it anyway. Grab that moment and be a part of the co-creation of history."
In her advocacy for child protection and indigenous children’s rights, Blackstock, a member of the Gitksan First Nation and professor of social work at Montreal's McGill University, has been grabbing the moment for more than 25 years. As a young social worker, she became concerned that a focus on the family unit wasn’t taking larger societal structures into account. "That launched me into finding out what structures were placing First Nations children at risk and what could be done about them," she says.
In 2007, her organization and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act alleging that Canada discriminates against First Nations children by consistently underfunding child welfare on reserves. A multiyear battle ensued, ending with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal substantiating the complaint and ordering the Canadian government to ensure First Nations children can access government services as other children in ways that meet their unique needs. Since that 2016 ruling, the tribunal has issued four noncompliance orders "and we’re now starting to see some compliance," says Blackstock. "Close 80,000 services have been provided to First Nations children as a result." The Tribunal continues to monitor Canada's implementation of its orders.
The court case was the subject of a 2016 documentary film by Alanis Obomsawin, We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice.
Blackstock pursued an MJ degree in children's law and policy because "I was confronted by the limitations of my own knowledge and realized I could do more with a legal education," she says. Unable to find a Canadian online MJ program that addressed children and families, she chose Loyola. "The instructors were fantastic—open to me tailoring my education as much as possible for the causes I was working on—and I really enjoyed the interdisciplinary student body," she says.
In other work, Blackstock has assisted the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in developing and adopting a General Comment on the Rights of Indigenous children and helped produce a youth-friendly version of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Her 2017 children’s book, Spirit Bear and Children Make History, is based on the effective participation of indigenous young people in the court case.
When it went to court, "the Caring Society had one full-time staff member and a total budget of $500,000," she says. "But the very best group to deal with large governments is a small collection of people who believe in doing the right thing and have nothing to lose."