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Advocate Cindy Blackstock is giving Canadians suggestions for better ways to refer to first peoples. (Credit: Cindy Blackstock/Facebook)

Cindy Blackstock is quietly teaching Twitter how to refer to the first peoples in Canada

The advocate is targeting those in the media and anyone who wants to join these conversations, but doesn't know how.

By Amy van den Berg

Gitxsan advocate Cindy Blackstock is helping Canadians have important conversations about Indigenous peoples, one word at a time.

Since Saturday, she has been posting daily tweets that aim to give her nearly 30,000 followers alternate words to refer to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, along with explanations about why using the wrong language is harmful.

“I run into people all over the country and I see caring Canadians really trying to have these conversations, but not being sure about how to find the words,” Blackstock said about why she decided to post the tweets. “It’s an easy way to provide one idea per day on how people can change their language so it’s less colonial and more reflective of reconciliation.”

Blackstock has worked in social work and Indigenous rights for decades, and has been called Canada’s ‘relentless moral voice’ for First Nations equality. A professor at the school of social work at McGill, Blackstock said the tweets are directed towards any person who wants to join these conversations but doesn’t know how.

She said she plans to post one tweet a day until she hits 10 to 15 words. At the top of her list is the word “healing,” which she wrote “reinforces the savage/civilized dichotomy that underpins colonialism.”

“I don’t like categorizing an entire group of people as recovering from illness,” she said. 

At a time when Canada is struggling to figure out what reconciliation means, using the correct wording has never been so important. Canada has improperly referred to First Nations peoples throughout its history, beginning with the arrival of settlers who believed they had reached India. The word "Indian" stuck and lives on via the 1876 Indian Act and in conversation.

Indigenous relations trainer Bob Joseph wrote in a 2016 CBC opinion piece that using the right terminology isn't about Canadians' comfort levels. “It's about showing respect and using the term that individuals and organizations have chosen for themselves.”

Joseph also asked Canadians to not use the possessive phrase “Our Indigenous Peoples,” or “Canada’s First Nations,” a sentiment Blackstock echoed.  

In another tweet, she suggested avoiding the use of words like “vulnerable,” and “marginalized” when speaking about first peoples of Canada, since they codify and generalize the situation. Rather, she recommends describing individuals as living with structural risk.

Canadians should also be mindful of “Indigenous”—a collective noun for First Nations, Inuit and Métis—since it bunches multiple diverse groups together. Blackstock said. Both media and the government have adopted this word in favour of Aboriginal, but often, she said, people use Indigenous when they could refer to individual communities or groups.

This is something Blackstock says is damaging to communities. “It reinforces the mental frame of colonialism.”

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