Children’s voice in advocacy—lessons from Canada

‘What children know is that every child deserves to have clean water to drink, every animal needs to be treated with kindness, every child needs good food to eat and someone to love and hug them. They need to grow up in their families, they need to have great early educators, like you, who nurture and learn with them’—Dr Cindy Blackstock.

Cindy Blackstock ED of First Nations Caring Society at ECA Conference, September 2018

Dr Cindy Blackstock, the dynamic Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, believes giving children a voice in advocacy is ‘the responsible thing to do’.

Her organisation took the Government of Canada to court for systematically providing less funding to First Nations children’s health and education than what was provided to non-Indigenous children, resulting in thousands of avoidable deaths. The Caring Society team invited children to court with teddy bears, which started a whole 'Spirit Bear’ movement—Spirit Bear now has his own book that tells the story of how thousands of children came together and made a difference for other children.


A teddy bear was the favourite toy of Jordan River Anderson, a five-year-old Indigenous boy with complex health needs, who died in hospital because provincial and federal governments wrangled over who should pay for his care. Spirit Bear is the symbol of Jordan’s Principle, which is now a legally binding ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that is meant to ensure all First Nations children receive the services they need within 48 hours.


Inspired by our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day, Dr Blackstock decided to turn Valentine’s Day into Have a Heart Day. Now, every February, thousands of children across Canada send heart-shaped letters and messages to their Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, saying that First Nations children have the right to grow up safely in their families, receive a good education and be healthy and proud of who they are.

Young children in early childhood centres are included too: ‘The early childhood educator would ask “what do children need to have for a healthy childhood?” and the children would draw something, or sing a song’.

Dr Blackstock says it’s important ‘not to have adults be intermediaries for children, but to have adults interact and hear from children directly.

‘On Have a Heart Day there's one rule: no adults speak. And that's why it’s such a fantastic event. The children have a microphone, and they read their letters out to the Prime Minister.’

Here’s one of the letters:

Dear Prime Minister, do you have a cat? I have a cat. His name is Mica because I like collecting rocks, and he's a boy, he's black. Listen to me, if you do not build more schools you're going to create a crime wave and lose all of your money. Because kids who cannot get an education, cannot get jobs when they're bigger, but they're still gonna need money, so some of them gonna have to steal it. And then people in the community are going to get mad, because crooks are invading their homes. My teacher tells me that you're in charge, so you better man up now and build more schools, love Harry.            

The Caring Society also applied this principle of giving children a voice by publishing a Children and Youth issue of their academic journal, First People’s Child and Family Review.

‘We thought, why wouldn't we have children as peer reviewers of the journal, and why wouldn't we have children in charge of the publication of the journal?’ says Dr Blackstock.

The Children and Youth issue includes art from young children, through early childhood educators, as well as written and audio-visual contributions from older children.

‘The children's edition is by far the most read edition. So this is something you can do to mentor children in how to do publishing and to support their voice being heard’, says Dr Blackstock.

‘We've sent it to the Prime Minister and to the United Nations as part of our report for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.’

Another great initiative is 'Honouring Memories, Planting Dreams', which is about helping children to ‘plant gardens with meaning’. It’s about remembering the many thousands of First Nations children in Canada who died due to a lack of health funding, and honouring the advocate, Dr Peter H. Bryce, who spoke out for change more than a hundred years ago, and who was not listened to at the time.


‘We ask children to plant a “heart garden” in remembrance of some of the children that Dr Bryce tried to save, and they can also work with Indigenous adults to plant Indigenous medicines in their garden. And in that way they learn about residential schools, and in the act of planting they're making their commitment to reconciliation.’

And for people who worry that engaging children in advocacy is involving them in politics, Dr Blackstock says, ‘Of course it’s political—we're not apologetic about this. We're not partisan. We teach the children that the people in this House [of Parliament] can make a difference and make decisions about water, about schools, and that you have a voice as a child that needs to be heard by these people. I think that's a responsible thing to do’.

Dr Blackstock says we have outspoken children as role models in Australia, such as Harper Nielsen, the nine-year-old Queensland girl who refused to stand for the National Anthem at a school assembly because she believed it was racist and wrong:

‘What an amazing young girl, nine years old and I have to tell you, that kid was trending on Twitter in North America. She had so many re-tweets … and what people were most impressed by was that this was a young girl who had the moral courage to stand up and do the right thing.’

Speaking to a packed auditorium of early childhood educators at the 2018 ECA National Conference, Dr Blackstock concluded her keynote address by asking:

‘How do we raise another generation of kids to get into trouble? Well, first of all, I think we all have to be prepared to get into trouble a little bit ourselves. We have to, of course, raise them to be dignified and respectful. But getting into trouble for doing the right thing is even more important in today's world than it ever has been.’

As educators, you are this generation of children's best hope, so follow the advice of young Cree education activist, Shannen Koostachin, who says:

‘Schools are places of dreams and every kid deserves this. Never give up on us, because we want to grow up and be someone important.’

 What you can do