Professor Cindy Blackstock is a member of the Gitksan First Nation and Executive Director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. She has 25 years of social work experience in child protection and Indigenous children’s rights. Her promotion of culturally based and evidence informed solutions has been recognised by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation amongst many others. As an author of over 50 publications, Cindy has collaborated with many Indigenous leaders to assist the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in the development and adoption of a General Comment on the Rights of Indigenous Children. On June 26th Professor Cindy Blackstock facilitated a Masterclass hosted by the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak (QATSICPP) designed to strengthen the voice of the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Child Protection Sector and further encourage representation and strong advocacy.

How far are we prepared to go in standing up for what we know to be right, just and fair? Professor Cindy Blackstock outlined that advocacy requires integrity and a belief in social justice that means being prepared to take risks, accept sacrifices and take hits. This was a key message throughout her Masterclass.

During this Masterclass, Professor Blackstock invited participants to attend a Teddy Bear picnic: “All you need to engage children is a Teddy Bear.” She noted that engaging children in causes that impact them is an important consideration. From the age of 2 children understand fairness. As part of the Family and Caring Society of Canada, bears and children are centre stage in waging campaigns for children’s rights and wellbeing. Spirit Bear, a key campaigner, has his own website and twitter account. Cindy was clear that movements need love, not tears or anger: “Kids with Teddy bears and bubbles.” She advised all to go to Twitter and follow @SpiritBear. Cindy also noted that being small has its merits as small is good for advocacy: “The bigger you are, the more difficult it becomes.” She also recommended looking up Nuns on a Bus as an excellent example of advocacy.

“Colonialism is a proclamation of European as civilised and Indigenous as savage,” noted Cindy. “We’re uncomfortable challenging for full equity because we fear they might take away what we already have. In Canada, First Nation’s children have been treated unfairly since confederation. If we get clean water in a First Nation community, they call it reconciliation. Fix a water pipe in Toronto, it’s not reconciliation. Why should we be thankful for clean water? Over the years we’ve accepted excuses such as – it’s complicated to deliver services to First Nation folks. It’s not complicated to get clean water in Canada. We need to unpack the inequities and no longer accept them.”

Professor Blackstock noted that there are many opportunities to bring about change in resistant environments. What can we do to be helpful with regard to all of the issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children? “Reducing inequalities in the country is a start.” Cindy noted the quote from Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organisation: “Social injustice is killing on a grand scale. Health inequity really is a mater of life or death.”

She spoke to the social and economic inequities including gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability and migration. She noted a critique of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that says he missed expanses of time. “The triangle is a tepee – open to sky and universe – he missed that too. Self-actualisation at the top is a no – you’d only last one generation with that analysis. It is communal actualisation we need. We recognise self-determination of Aboriginal people as a determinant of health.” The ever-present nature of colonialism was highlighted by Cindy – the Indian card in Canada and turning off water and electricity in Australian communities to force Indigenous people off the land being just two examples. “We need to hold government’s feet to the fire for things it can change. Then we hold Indigenous feet to the fire for the things they can change.” Cindy advised against the use of the term healing: “You have inherited multi-generational strength of ancestral teaching – take credit for your resilience to live in conditions you have experienced such as living without running water.”

Cindy asserted that we need to use strategies that remind governments that they need to do better. Options such as the KidsRights Index 2019 shows Australia at 19th place. The Child Rights Environment places Australia 94-120 in terms of attention to children in legislation and budgets. These are good advocacy tools to be aware of.

“Men, I want you to be quiet more often when you’re in the company of women. Women talk 70% less when in the company of men. Women need to speak up. Women are key when considering children and families and the services that can support them. Promoting women’s confidence is important. So too is promoting the confidence of girls so that they don’t fall into these age-old patterns.” Cindy expanded her comments to say: “We need to honour Ancestor’s knowledge and not apologise for it. Women are more concerned by failure than men. We need to know that failure and messing up is about learning. Women have to just get out there. So what if we fail! We have to give generously of what we know. We’ve been gifted power and knowledge and we need to share it. Most of our women at are the bottom, not the top.”

Cindy further stated that children teach us how to be courageous. “Advocacy causes don’t teach us how to be courageous. Social Workers in my community were whimps. Social Workers didn’t arrive on the scene until 10 years after the social issue hit the headlines. When we talk of moral courage, we mean that you need to be prepared to sacrifice if you’re truly in service. That means you step up when others want you to sit down. Stand firm and rock the boat when others want you still.”

In continuing this theme, Cindy stated that we punish moral courage and celebrate physical courage. “We’re attuned to walk away from discomfort. Moral courage is we take a hit. That includes: disapproval, job loss or program loss. We’re all genius in the rear-view mirror as we consider all the things we should have said. After I get through the panic moment, I feel better. If you have integrity and moral courage you don’t need self-care – I’m prepared to get into a lot of trouble for doing the right thing. Moral courage needs to be practised. We need a new set of glasses when we go out today. Make a conscious decision and note when you’re being a moral coward or when you’re being morally courageous – really try to consciously foster that in the work you do.”

Non-Indigenous organisations often say to Cindy: “We’re right behind you.” She responds by saying: “Well get in front of me so I can see you and the government can see you too.” She further noted that when children see unfairness, they don’t form a committee, they just speak up and do something. “Kids are much more focused on fairness. We need to not grow up. Your job is to remember how to stay young and babble.”

Most often people are morally courageous for someone we love. Cindy noted that we’re being asked to be morally courageous for people who will never know of our sacrifice. “When we created the Caring Society, we were excited. An Elder cautioned us against ever falling in love with the Caring Society or our business cards. We need only fall in love with children. You may sacrifice it all for children one day. Organisations are only there to support children and their families. We filed a human rights case in 2007 and we lost all of our government funding within 30 days. There were a couple of positives: First of all, we were small. Also, we believed in spirituality: Faith is knowing when you step from lightness to darkness, there will be something there for you to stand on or you’ll learn to fly.”

Another way of highlighting the importance of moral courage is to nominate the morally courageous for awards. This is important both in terms of recognition and offering a shield. “Award those who stand up when the chips are down” said Cindy.

“Integrity is when words have meaning.” Cindy lamented that often Indigenous people are offered apologies without much meaning. “We need a reform agenda often means a reform of child welfare and communities but not a reform of government and organisations. To change this, we need to welcome the idea of truth and critique as being loving. Hold us accountable for the values we espouse. Accountability and learning are key.” Cindy also noted the importance of overcoming the risk we all manufacture in our own minds: “We put ourselves in our own prison.”

Cindy outlined a Check List for Moral Courage (Kidder, 2005):

  1. Assess the situation: Do I need to be courageous?
  2. Scan for values: What values are you standing up for?
  3. Stand for conscience: What principles need to be articulated or defended?
  4. Contemplate the dangers: Do I have a clear idea of the risks?
  5. Endure the hardship: Am I willing to deal with the consequences, or will the risk make me give up?
  6. Avoid the pitfalls: Am I too timid or foolish?
  7. Develop moral courage – DO IT!

PERILS to moral courage: (Kidder, 2005; Blackstock, 2011)

  1. Loyalty to organisation/leader including bad ideas and unethical behaviour
  2. Ignore or minimise dissenting and expert opinion
  3. Too much reflection leading away from action and toward rationalising inaction (such as – Aboriginal people are complex)
  4. Bystander apathy (someone else can change it)
  5. Rewarding conforming and punishing moral courage.

Cindy noted that the opposite of loyalty is often seen as insubordination. She said that we create cultures where people are expected to be loyal to bad ideas. She stated that the Black Sheep Award is significant. Through this we talk to the people doing the work about what policy they’re breaking to benefit people and then we reward those who challenge us.

“Identifying problems and solutions and working with those in community is advocacy. Do something! It is not enough to care.” Cindy asserted that bystanders are the most dangerous by far as they enable evil things to happen. “Not my business, someone else will do it. When it gets really bad, I’ll be there on the front line. Injustice is our collective injustice, and everybody matters. We need to reward the trouble makers.”

With regard to Mosquito Advocacy we need to document the problem, provide evidence-based solutions, ensure governments and/or organisations have the required resources and when governments don’t implement the necessary change, enact the Mosquito Advocacy.

We need to ask ourselves – Are we doing the right thing? So often we will change our behaviour based on the proximity to the consequences instead of standing up for what is right. In the case of the I am a Witness campaign, Cindy noted that discrimination does not like a witness. “We wanted to make sure the public watched – not to take sides – just to watch. Some may disagree but we urged all to see. Spirit Bear was there. Any movement has to expand beyond the collation of the willing.”

Cindy was also clear that we can’t assume that governments and big bureaucracies are logical and moral. As such we need to focus on the cause and not be waylaid by the symptoms. “I’m interested in the overrepresentation of First Nation kids; underneath that is inequality and a belief we don’t have the capacity to raise our children better. To combat that we need an infectious message.” Whilst we’ve been trained to be more specific, the answer is to be more general according to Cindy.

Cindy critiqued the conference culture of Social Workers who go to networks but sit with friends – the same people talking about the same problems. A message for Elders and others is: “You should not be going to Social Work conferences because if Social Workers knew what to do, they would have done it by now. We have to come to conferences with an agenda and then create a buzz.” A day of action has to be nested in a bigger strategy was another key message Cindy offered “All need to stay in the game and bite with a peaceful action to force resistant change.”

“Freedom is when we see values as the most important thing.” Cindy recommended reading The Element by Ken Robinson. “Each of us has an intrinsic gift. We need to nurture that gift, give it to the community and nurture others to do the same.” She also suggested assigning tasks to those who are good at them. “It is important to learn about the gifts of others – this reduces bullying.”

The Mosquito effect is not a thing. Cindy was clear about that. “You don’t call for an Inquiry or such – you can easily get them and then what? You want to sell a dream.” In Don’t think of an Elephant George Lakoff outlines the importance of holding your own frame and language whilst others are arguing against you. An example of applying Lakoff’s approach to First Nation’s children’s equity: “First Nations children deserve a fair chance to grow up safely at home, get a good education, be healthy and proud of who they are.” This can be achieved by inviting a whole generation of children to be agents of change. They will write letters to government and they will take to the microphone. All of the children involved are focused on justice.

Cindy outlines that these processes are not about charity as charity goes along with colonialism. This is about justice. In framing your message evidence is critical to responsibly creating a solution. Lakoff argues that metaphors and values are critical in shaping such messages and solutions. Frame issues based on deeply held metaphors, such as family; and deeply held national values such as truth, freedom and fairness.

“Avoid taking up the framing language of the other side” says Cindy. “Create your own position and language and make sure you frame the outcome not the method.” Cindy cited five universal values integral to such campaigns: Honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion (Kidder 2005). She concluded with the sentiment that the power of contradiction is vital. “Politicians expect the adults but what is needed is the voice of children.”