By Doug Sweet
There would be very few Canadians who have not heard the name Cindy Blackstock. One of the country’s leading activists for First Nations children, Blackstock was catapulted into the headlines earlier this year when the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed with her complaint (filed jointly with the Assembly of First Nations) that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by providing support that is far lower than that offered to children off reserves. It was a landmark ruling. Blackstock, who is Executive Director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society, has returned to McGill with a teaching position in the School of Social Work. The Gitxsan activist, who earned a Master’s at the Faculty of Management in 2000, is settling in at Wilson Hall and looking forward to developing a new course.
Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher Manfredi, whose Task Force on Indigenous Education launches on Thursday, Sept. 22, said he is pleased to welcome Blackstock back to McGill. “She is an outstanding scholar and passionate advocate in an area of critical importance for Canada. I look forward to her leadership on these issues at McGill.” Added Nico Trocmé, Director of the School of Social Work: “We are thrilled to have Dr. Blackstock join the School of Social Work. She is a leading Canadian and international scholar and advocate for Indigenous rights. Our Social Work students are particularly excited to learn from her extensive advocacy experience. We expect that her presence will attract more indigenous students to the School and help us further develop our social work programs in this critical area of social work practice.”
Blackstock sat down with The Reporter to discuss what she plans to do at McGill and why the issues she has tackled are so vitally important.
What brought you to McGill in the first place – the first time you came to McGill?
It was the innovative program, the opportunity to explore management, but not through the traditional lens. Not through just managing the status quo, but, under Francis Westley’s leadership, really looking at how do you create change in the world when necessary. And how do you decipher what things should be changed and what things should be left alone? That program was particularly interesting to me and I liked the interdisciplinary nature of it. … So I thought I’d throw my hand in and that’s how I got started over there in the year 2000.
What brings you back to McGill?
I have had a longstanding relationship with Nico Trocmé, and under his leadership the First Nations incident study and other work that’s done here at the Faculty; I’ve always found them to be very good allies in our work, our collective work, in the interests of First Nations children. I’m also at a stage in my life where I need to pass the skills on to the next generation about how to do this work. How do you challenge ingrained and normalized racial discrimination against indigenous peoples in this country?
We’ve noticed within the last few years a very sharp rise in the importance of indigenous issues to students especially, but more broadly on campus. McGill is not unique in that regard – there seems to be a greater interest in indigenous issues, indigenous education, the role of indigenous people in general. Why now? The problems have existed for decades. Why this moment?
I think the stories are starting to pile up on the Canadian consciousness in ways that people can no longer turn away. And we have collectively a great debt to the survivors of residential schools, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners, for bringing those stories out of the darkness and into the light. And making us look at them, not turn away. And compounded on that, we have the stories of the murdered and missing indigenous women, and, of course, the most recent decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that the federal government racially discriminated against 163,000 indigenous children. So I think it’s that moment.
I also think it’s been aided quite a bit by social media as indigenous peoples themselves have been able to more effectively work as a movement and work as a collective across the country. And to engage non-aboriginal peoples and allies in that work. The question is: what are we going to do about it? Are we going to let this moment lapse and let the racial discrimination to continue unfettered and pass that burden down to the next generation, or are we going to do something about it? And I think that’s the challenge here for McGill.…
What will you be teaching?
I really want to teach a course on how to do public-policy advocacy in change-resistant environments. I think there’s really been, in my experience in public policy courses, too often an assumption that governments are both moral and logical. And that what you need to do, as a researcher, is identify a problem, work with them on a solution and if the harm is significant enough and the payoff is good enough for public society, then they’ll do something about it. But that’s not always right. So what do you do when they’re entrenched, not just ignoring what you’re saying, but fighting against it – be it a government or a corporation? That’s an experience I bring through my past work on the Tribunal, but also more broadly on indigenous issues, and I see it as being critical for the exercise of reconciliation, but also informative to other social-rights movements.
How hopeful are you that, as the result of this moment we’re talking about, that there will be some real change, and not just “agree and ignore?”
I think that’s going to depend on Canadians. I’ve read numerous reports going back 50, 60 years, where writers and researchers have been writing about hardships for First Nations children and they actually identify public apathy as the key problem in not getting government to react. Because governments generally don’t create change, they respond to change. This growing groundswell of Canadian awareness and action needs to continue and embolden itself. If it does that, then we have a chance to reach that tipping point moment as they have in the civil rights movement and, more recently, in the LGBTQ movement. We need to get there, too; we’re not there yet.
Some would argue in the States that progress made on civil rights issues is actually now turning around and going back.
Peter Mansbridge asked me that same question on One on One, and what I said is, there’s clearly a problem with the civil rights movement in the United States. But where they’ve gotten to, is that at least they know racial discrimination against African Americans happens and it’s wrong. We’re not there yet in Canada when it comes to First Nations peoples. Too many Canadians still think that we [indigenous peoples] are ungrateful over-beneficiaries of the Canadian purse. And it’s our lack of effort and determination that has led to our hardship, not structural discrimination that is state-based. You know, things are pretty disturbing every time I pick up my phone and see something about [U.S. presidential candidate Donald] Trump, but if he were to stand up there and say, ‘I am going to pass an Act in the United States that gives African American children 30 to 40 per cent less across every public service,’ I think there would be rightful outrage about it. But here in Canada that’s happening, and people don’t know about it.
In Canadian history, you go back into the 19th century and from the prime minister of the day on down, there was this sort of genocidal thinking, that what we really need to do is get rid of them all. Macdonald wanted Canada to be an Aryan state. Most of us weren’t taught these things in school. Is it any better now?
It’s starting to get better, thanks to groups like Project of Heart, which I am really honoured to collaborate with. Project of Heart was a group started by teachers, and it really is about bringing the lessons of the residential schools into the classrooms – but not just as a historical lesson, but to get young people to think, ‘What are the values and beliefs that allowed that to happen? How are they manifested? And then how do you see them in contemporary times? What can you do about contemporary discrimination – not only about First Nations and Métis peoples, but then more broadly in society, too.’ … So teach kids actual, effective political engagement without being partisan.
As Canadians, we’ve grown to be pretty smug, we think our country has a tremendous human-rights record, and all the rest of it. But when it comes to native issues, the collective action just hasn’t been there, yet, in the same way that you mentioned LGBTQ, for example. Do we need a Native Lives Matter movement?
I think that we need to rise above and look at the fundamental values of Canada. What I have said in the last couple of months is that Canada has racial discrimination as federal fiscal policy against First Nations peoples. We have perpetrated that since Confederation, and we continue to allow governments to rationalize it, using a variety of mythologies. Number 1 is that it is too complex to treat First Nations children equally, even though they treat other children in the country. Number 2, First Nations can’t manage their money well, so we need to build their capacity. (And sure, there are some First Nations people who don’t manage their money well, but we’re not alone in that. And, if you’re going to take one individual or one group of individuals from any cultural, racial or religious group and say that if they commit fraud then the whole group has to go under a financial accountability Act, then fine, let’s do it for everybody – right?) Then the third thing, the most toxic potion, is this notion of incremental involvement, which is when you have cross-cutting and longstanding discrimination and inequities across every area of public service.
And then you weave a narrative in the Canadian public that First Nations are actually getting more than everybody else, they’re not getting less. And then the budget cycle comes up and you give them a few hundred million dollars for education – sounds like a lot of money. But you don’t mention that it falls far short of what the average Canadian is already receiving. This whole idea of incremental equality is something that is really embedded in the Canadian government, as well as the provincial and territorial governments. We should be thankful for being discriminated a little bit less than we were yesterday.
What’s the role of universities in changing these things?
I think universities have a critical role, particularly with First Nations education. It quite frankly concerns me when I see universities wanting to approve First Nations students, yet being silent about the fact that these First Nations kids, when they’re going to elementary and secondary school, are getting somewhere between 50 and 70 cents on the education dollar compared to other kids. Because the universities don’t want to speak out against the government. The result is that First Nations students have a far smaller opportunity to even walk through the doors of a place like this.
So don’t we have to fix the elementary and secondary systems first, before universities can admit more indigenous students?
I think you do both. I’ve always said, ‘You don’t recruit aboriginal students; you change your university environment so that they’ll come.’ And that’s a mistake I think a lot folks make and that is to go and try to recruit them into your system. And then the system itself isn’t welcoming of indigenous ideas or students or peoples. And therefore those students don’t stay very long or aren’t successful. So my strategy is, you change the conditions in which the university operates. And then indigenous students will self-select to come here.
What kinds of changes are needed?
I think it’s vital that every student in the university takes a course on aboriginal peoples in this country. And not only the students, but the administration and faculty as well. Because many of us, as we were just speaking about, learned nothing about this, either in elementary school or in our post-secondary training. You need to have a population of university students and faculty and staff who actually are familiar with this stuff. … One of the things we need to avoid is ghettoizing indigenous knowledge. But we should require that indigenous knowledge is threaded through all of the curriculum, not just an elective course that people get to take or not take. And the university needs to take concrete actions to demonstrate its respect for and its relations with indigenous peoples – one of which was just moving that stone [the Hochelaga Rock on the lower campus]. Another will be flying the Mohawk flag on Aboriginal Day, or other days important to the Mohawk people. Those are important indicators that the university is taking seriously what’s happening here.
And fundamentally, you need to look at where universities are allocating their budgets. If there’s lots of talk, but not a serious allocation of financial resources to make this happen, to support First Nations and Métis and aboriginal students and faculty, to really engage in reconciliation, then it’s not going to happen. And universities have to be courageous. There’s no way around it. Reconciliation means tackling the colonial forces within the government. And places like McGill need to do that, particularly as we talked about the First Nations students who dream of coming to a place like this, but really don’t have the same chance.
What we want to do is develop a public policy where the vast majority of students are able to succeed. That means not only supporting them in their learning when they’re in elementary and secondary school, but also we need to, again, change McGill. We need to change the atmosphere in McGill so that the students here are ready to receive and honour indigenous students, faculty and staff. …
We cannot allow that to go at a glacial pace. We cannot allow it. I hear a lot of times from institutions and governments, ‘We’re making good first steps.’ Well, a first step is only important if you take a second and a third step. And what I’ve seen over time is this pattern where I hear, ‘Oh, we’re taking good first steps.’ Five years later, ‘We’re taking good first steps.’ We have to demand more of ourselves. We have to say that we are really in a situation where structural discrimination is prohibiting not only indigenous students from being able to achieve their dreams, but we’re also denying non-aboriginal students some of the brilliance of indigenous knowledge. I can see where indigenous knowledge is vital to solving some of the issues in western science and social science that are stymied by that western way of thinking. And that’s why it’s vital that these students learn it.