In 1983, Shelley Johnson had just finished her sociology degree and moved to the B.C. Interior when she made a trip to the bank that would change her life.
“I was standing in a bank lineup and there were two guys standing in front of me, and they were talking about how they needed to hire a social worker,” she said. “So I tapped one of the guys on the shoulder and said, ‘I have a degree. What does a social worker do?’”
Johnson had a job interview with what was then the ministry of human resources the next day. She was hired the day after that, and despite not having a social work degree or knowing the provincial child welfare act, immediately given the power to remove children from their families.
While she shadowed more experienced social workers, Johnson didn’t receive on-the-job training for another two years.
“That was not uncommon in the Interior in the early ’80s,” said Johnson, now an associate professor of social work at Thompson Rivers University and the University of British Columbia, as well as the Canada Research Chair in Indigenizing Education. “There I was with all this legislative authority after about a half-an-hour interview.”
Johnson didn’t get a bachelor’s degree in social work until 1997, 14 years after she was hired. That’s when the B.C. government adopted recommendations from the Gove Inquiry into the short life and terrible death of Matthew Vaudreuil, which included requiring all ministry social workers to have social work degrees.
Meanwhile, Indigenous kids in B.C. made up a steadily increasing percentage of the children in government care. Over 30 per cent of children in care by the 1970s were Indigenous, according to estimates, climbing to more than 40 per cent in the 1980s and more than 50 per cent today.
But as the numbers climbed, social work education still failed to reflect Indigenous issues.
Raven Sinclair, now associate professor of social work at the University of Regina, started post-secondary at the University of Toronto in 1981.
“I went into a Canadian history class hoping I would learn something about Indigenous people, and there was nothing,” she said.
That changed when Sinclair went on to the bachelor of Indian social work program at First Nations University of Canada, then the only post-secondary school looking at social work through an Indigenous lens.
“That’s where I really had access to the collective wisdom of Indigenous scholars,” she said. “And that really helped me to understand, because in that context it was a given: everyone knew about the Scoop.”
Nevertheless, there was little research on Indigenous social work when Sinclair went through masters and PhD programs.
Many programs don’t address Indigenous issues, Sinclair says.
“Still today in 2018 there are schools of social work that have no Indigenous issues courses or have one that is maybe not required,” she said. “There are very few that have mandatory Indigenous courses.”
But that’s changing, thanks in large part to Indigenous social work academics like Sinclair and Johnson who demanded a new approach to looking at social work in Indigenous communities and empowering Indigenous families.
UVic: ‘It’s a very hopeful time’
The University of Victoria offered the first Indigenous social work programs in Canada, with both bachelors and masters of social work with Indigenous specializations developed in the mid 2000s.
“Someone who graduates with an Indigenous specialization will learn that cultural knowledge, they will learn about identity, colonialism. But more importantly they will learn, or relearn, ceremonial teachings or cultural practices,” said Jacquie Green, alumni and director of the UVic school of social work.
Green was working on her social work masters degree in public administration while the Indigenous specialization program was being developed. For her final project she travelled the province speaking to Indigenous communities and asking if the Indigenous people they hired with social work degrees were equipped to work with their communities.
“Overwhelmingly the answer was no because they were being educated from a mainstream BSW [bachelor of social work],” she said.
The communities wanted graduates who knew about their own identities as Indigenous people and their cultural practices and traditions. They wanted workers who had been given the chance to work through the trauma and harm from residential schools and the child welfare system, and the racism they had experienced.
Green and her colleagues strive to create these opportunities for the Indigenous specialization students. Students are encouraged to implement their own cultural teachings, languages and ceremonies into their practice, though residential schools and the Sixties Scoop have robbed many of the knowledge of their cultural traditions.
The aim is to have an Indigenous social work program that doesn’t hurt its students, says assistant professor Billie Allan.
“If you are in a classroom where your people are only talked about as a problem or people with problems, it really negatively impacts how you feel, versus if you’re in a classroom that talks about how your community and family is navigating many challenges subsequent to historical and ongoing colonizations,” she said, “but also has many strengths and gifts to offer in response to those challenges.”
Both Allan and Green acknowledge the past role of social workers in Indigenous communities has created suspicion.
But they hope their students will help create change.
“We’re not just training our students to move the furniture around, but also how to contribute to writing and changing policy,” Allan said. “I feel like it’s actually a very hopeful time.”
Training for social workers
Social workers who recognize the need to understand Indigenous practices and values can update their skills and understanding through programs in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. H. Monty Montgomery, an associate professor at the University of Regina’s School of Social Work, had a hand in creating both programs.
The first version was created over 1996 and ’97 through the Indigenous Perspectives Society, an organization that provides training programs for Indigenous child welfare agencies in British Columbia seeking to become Delegated Aboriginal Agencies with the Ministry of Child and Family Development.
Fully delegated Indigenous agencies can provide the same services and supports as a government child welfare agency, including taking kids into care and approving adoptions.
But there are six steps to delegation, and agency employees must receive the proper training for each stage. The ministry offered training, but it wasn’t culturally relevant for Indigenous people.
“So it was entirely rewritten,” said Montgomery, one of 12 people hired to overhaul the program. The result, he said, was more than 3,200 pages of curriculum and a 16-week program specifically for workers in First Nations agencies. It introduced standards and “discussed all of the various issues associated with meeting the legislated requirements of the British Columbia child welfare legislation.”
Indigenous scholarship and case studies from Australia, the United States and Canada shaped the program. Indigenous actors were hired to act out scenarios for training videos. Indigenous lawyers were consulted on sections about the law.
The aim was to create a standardized training that ensured every Indigenous child welfare agency would be staffed by professionals with the same skill set. This lets workers to transfer to other agencies if they wish, while leaving room for agencies to incorporate the cultural practices of their communities and nations.
Families and kids in the system benefit from social workers who can explain how the system works in a way that is relevant to them.
That, Montgomery says, is why he got into social work. Understanding cultural needs adds to the level of trust between the families and social workers, he added.
“They have a sensitivity to some of the issues when their families talk about needing to go through certain ceremonies at times of year, or certain rites of passage that are happening there,” he said.
“And understand that the local histories differ very much from one another, and rather than expecting all Indigenous peoples will have had the same experience and negative outcomes, that there will be a lot of variability from one community to the next, from one family to the next, depending upon whether or not they went to residential schools, whether they were children in care their own selves. And not necessarily seeing this as a negative every time.”
When Montgomery moved to Saskatchewan to pursue his PhD, the leadership of 17 First Nations child and family services agencies and the federal department then known as Indian Affairs approached him to lead the same curriculum rewriting process.
This time, the curriculum was specifically for setting standards and developing training for workers in First Nations group homes though the training materials would go on to be used at all group homes in the province. The curriculum rewrite was done in collaboration with the directors of the First Nations agencies and vetted by First Nations elders. The whole process was overseen by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, the chiefs’ leadership group in Saskatchewan, to ensure the training respected the treaties in place in their territories.
The goal was “to ensure that a young Dene child or Lakota Child is getting culturally appropriate opportunities to know about their own culture, not about someone else's culture,” Montgomery said.
“And that there are requirements that they be engaged and there are opportunities for them to engage with knowledge keepers from their own cultural background, not as a pan-Indigenous understanding of what it means to be an Aboriginal person.”
More work needed, say social work students
Other post-secondary institutions in the country have taken steps or shown interest in following suit or shown interest in offering more Indigenous content and histories in their social work programs. But social work students want to see more.
At the Canadian Association of Social Work Education annual general meeting in 2015, the organization’s student committee introduced a motion to require all Canadian bachelors and masters of social work programs to include In-digenous-centred coursework. The motion passed, and Sinclair notes the University of Regina is making a currently elective Indigenous social work course mandatory this fall.
But it’s also important to hire Indigenous faculty into tenure track positions to teach those courses and not rely on precariously employed sessional instructors, she said, as well as build ongoing relationships between the institutions and the local Indigenous communities.
To really make a difference, change has to move beyond schools of social work, she said. Schools of medicine, law, nursing and police sciences need to change as well.
And so does the child welfare system itself, said Johnson. She isn’t interested in indigenizing a system that’s doing exactly what it was intended to do — control the lives of Indigenous people.
And while a social worker has the power to remove a child from care, it’s judges and ultimately politicians who have the real power over families.
“A social worker can remove a child, but a judge has to agree that the reason that the child was removed was substantiated in some way. And a judge makes the decision that a child comes into care and how long will stay there,” Johnson said.
However, the overtaxed system means children can spend a long time in care before their case is reviewed by a judge.
UVic’s social work director Green says she is still focused on the same goal she started with when she joined the faculty almost 18 years ago.
“That we would no longer need child protection workers for our people. That the work would be prevention work or family and cultural work.”
Coming Monday: In part eight, Reina Foster on lessons from a childhood in care, and a prescription for change.
Read more: Indigenous, Rights + Justice, Education
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