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Relationships How social worker and activist Cindy Blackstock does self-care

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Caring Society, speaks in Ottawa on Jan. 26, 2016.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

It's hard to imagine Dr. Cindy Blackstock, one of Canada's staunchest advocates for indigenous children, being toppled. In her 30 years as a social worker and activist, she's been spied on by the federal government, even as it spent millions fighting her in front of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

She also had some big wins, after which she keeps going, holding the country's feet to the fire. Through it all, her fearlessness seems impenetrable.

"I don't give power to negative forces. I've never been someone who dwells on barriers," Blackstock said from her Ottawa home. "I only keep focused on what we need, which is these children having a positive childhood."

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The Gitxsan social worker has been making tidal waves in Canada. For over a decade, she's been pushing for the implementation of Jordan's Principle – a child-first health-care funding process named for a five-year-old boy who died in 2005 as the federal and Manitoba governments bickered over who should pay for his home-care costs.

In 2007, her organization, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS) filed a case with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Alongside the Assembly of First Nations, it argued First Nations kids on-reserve are not afforded the same rights as all other Canadian children.

Within 30 days of the case being filed, the federal government cut core funding for the FNCFCS. By the spring of 2009, it received no federal funding at all. And in 2013, Canada's Privacy Commissioner ruled that, during this time, the federal government compiled personal information from Blackstock's social-media accounts with a fervour that violated the spirit of the Privacy Act.

It's extraordinary at times that Blackstock doesn't collapse under the weight of it all.

"At the end of the day, they can strip me economically, but the most important thing for me is to live my life with integrity and in service to these kids, and only I can give that away. They can never take it from me," she said.

Blackstock admits there are tough times, when the work bleeds into home, when dark days take over the light, when injustice is a hard pill to swallow and constant rallying disquiets everyday life. The 52-year-old attributes her rock-solid resilience to taking care of herself every single day and knowing when it's time to book off and be on her own.

"I just need days by myself; I call them 'days of infinite possibilities,'" she explains. Long walks and chats with friends and family, shopping and home repairs take Blackstock away from an intense schedule. "Even in difficult times, I just try to put it all in perspective, you know? I am a big believer in Cheezies and bath bombs," she laughs. "It's my release."

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She's also buoyed by the changes she is witnessing everywhere in Canada. "People are starting to understand that this is a fundamental question of justice and this is in fact racial discrimination on part of the federal government," she said.

She's right. On Jan. 26, 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada racially discriminates against 163,000 First Nations children. Now, Blackstock is focused on making sure the government acts swiftly to execute the changes – including a redesign of Canada's child welfare system.

She avows she won't be giving up any time soon. "I am always just stunned that I have to be an activist to get equity for little kids," she said.

Her razor-sharp focus on the rights of indigenous children is not the only thing that keeps her pressing on. Blackstock is also determined to live in concert with cultural values – including integrity, service and courage – passed down from her parents and grandparents.

"Once you decide that, then every fear kind of drops away, because your values are something that no one can take away," she said. That's a big part of her advice to younger or newer activists. "No. 1, identify your values and develop the moral courage to defend them."

Her team recently turned down federal government funding because it didn't pass their "ethical screen test" even though the FNCFCS could have used the money. "I just thought, no, I have to do this, this is the right thing to do. Yes, we don't have government funding, but it will all work out and it always has, " Blackstock said.

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One of her personal mottos comes from the poem Faith by Patrick Overton. "It goes, 'When you step across that place where light leads into darkness there will be something solid to stand on or you will be taught to fly,'" Blackstock paraphrases.

The Globe speaks to some people in the midst of the Women’s March on Washington to find out what motivated them to participate.
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