‘Ottawa’ School Trustee Donna Blackburn Reveals Alcoholism, Past Sexual Abuse
Donna Blackburn has never been one to bite her tongue.
Even so, she kept one secret close for more than 20 years: That she was a teenage victim of sexual abuse and has battled depression and alcoholism for nearly as long.
“I haven’t come out just to have people say, ‘That’s very courageous’ and ‘Good for you’ — even though that’s nice to hear,” says Blackburn, the two-term trustee for Barrhaven-Knoxdale-Merivale. “It wasn’t a decision I made quickly. My goal is to make things better for kids and better for their families, just like all the people who went before me to make my life better.”
Blackburn, 48, is the outspoken and openly gay public school trustee who got herself into hot water with the board earlier this year after calling some other trustees “whackjobs” for their unwillingness to cut costs. She’s a no-nonsense single mom from Kapuskasing, On. who says the highest compliment she ever received on social media was from the person who called her “authentic.”
Still, when she opened up about her alcoholism and sexual abuse two weeks ago in a story published in Ottawa Community News, it caught even close friends off guard. The response, however, has been overwhelmingly positive, she said.
“I have about a thousand friends on Facebook and I heard from every aspect of my life — from people I knew in kindergarten up until now (and they have been) telling me about their struggles and their abuse. I just hope that in all these years they’ve got the support they need.”
Blackburn was an athletic ” tomboy” growing up in Kapuskasing, 10 hours by car northwest of Ottawa, a girl more interested in hockey than the figure skating her mother enrolled her in. She convinced her mom to take her to the hockey arena instead, and was stunned to be told she couldn’t play.
“I was seven or eight and it didn’t make sense to me. ‘You mean, I can’t play hockey because I’m a girl?’ That was my first sense of being a second-class citizen.”
She was a good swimmer, too, good enough that she went to high school in Sudbury, 400 kilometres to the south, boarding with a family so she could train at Laurentian University. It was there that Blackburn, then 14, began an affair with a woman close to her who was more than 20 years her senior. The affair lasted five years.
“It was very abusive, in every way,” she said. “It wasn’t my fault. I was just a child.”
Did she know then she was gay?
“No. Not really. I have friends who said, ‘Oh I knew I was gay when I was five. I’m like, really? What were you thinking about when you were five? But we’re all different, right? That’s the point.”
Outspoken and openly gay public School trustee Donna Blackburn has recently gone public with her harrowing story of alcoholism and sexual abuse.
It was around that time Blackburn began to drink, often showing up drunk for class in her final year of high school. Her teachers didn’t notice. She was a quiet and successful student.
When the affair ended, traumatically and unhappily, she drank even more — always beer, never liquor or wine. She studied political science at Laurentian University and eventually landed a job on Parliament Hill, working for her political hero, Sheila Copps, the longtime Liberal MP from Hamilton.
“Because I’m a lesbian, I always thought I’d be a backroom girl. Working for the party. Working for other people. The notion that I might actually run politically — well, the only person around who was out as a gay politician was Svend (Robinson). Now, we’re everywhere. I mean the premier of Ontario for God’s sake!”
Copps knew Blackburn was struggling with her sexual identity at the time, but wasn’t aware of her alcohol abuse. She calls Blackburn “a great friend and a loyal ally.”
“She is a wonderful person with great values who tackles her demons with vigour,” Copps said in an email to the Sun. “Definitely a great person to have in your corner … who is also willing to call you out when you are wrong.”
Blackburn said she eventually grew disillusioned working on the Hill. Quitting her job, she found her life in crisis. She had always struggled with depression, but in 2007 a suicide attempt landed her in detox.
“There’s a lot of alcoholism in my family. It wasn’t a big surprise to me that that’s how I chose to deal with the situation.” Many other sufferers of sexual abuse turn to alcohol or drugs to cope, she said.
She sought treatment through the Royal Ottawa’s Meadow Creek Residential Treatment Program, but it didn’t go well. Blackburn quit and turned instead to Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre, which focuses its out-patient and counselling services around feminist principles.
Blackburn is no fan of the ubiquitous 12-step treatment programs that are essentially unchanged from the original religion-based Alcoholics Anonymous model from the 1950s. Amethyst doesn’t use that model.
“Amethyst is what saved my life,” she said. “Amethyst was the first place to say to me, you don’t like the 12 steps? That’s OK.”
But Amethyst doesn’t have its own residence. After extensive counselling and stabilization, Amethyst referred Blackburn to a residential program in Brockville — ironically, one based on 12 steps.
“If I ever won a lottery — and I won’t because I don’t buy tickets — I would use to help build a residential service for Amethyst,” she said.
Blackburn went back to school, earning a degree in social work at Carleton University. She’s never needed residential treatment again, though she concedes she continues to struggle “off and on” with alcohol. It has never affected her job as a trustee, she said.
“People always ask me, ‘When was your last drink?’ and my answer is, ‘I didn’t drink yesterday, I haven’t had a drink today and I hope not to drink tomorrow.’ People are so focused on their number of days (sober), but I’ve met a lot of people who have strung a lot of days together and they’re still assholes.”
Blackburn knows she’s taking a risk by telling her story, but she went into it with her eyes wide open.
“I think my life experience and my addictions and my struggles with mental health make me a better trustee,” she said. “And anybody that would try to throw that in my face, I say, go for it. The people who know me know my commitment to the kids and their families.”