New initiative brings decision-making to islands

  • Dec. 22, 2004 4:00 p.m.

By Jeff Kirk–Three homeless puppies play outside the Old Massett Village Education (OMVE) Center. Inside Monica Brown and Lisa Bell are trying to find homes. Not for lost puppies, but Haida children in need of foster homes. Currently, there are only six foster homes on Haida Gwaii.
The Haida Nation recently embarked on a new initiative with the provincial and federal government, transferring responsibility from the Ministry of Families and Children to the newly formed Haida Nation Children and Family Services (HNCFS) Both Monica Brown and Lisa Bell will play key roles in its future development.
Ms Brown, the Community Consultant Assistant to the Haida Tribal Society (HTS), says the HNCFS is a ‘stand-alone society’ administered by the HTS, which should be operating fully within the next year. Working alongside Ms. Brown as liaison worker for Haida children in foster care is Ms. Bell, who recently graduated from Northwest Community College’s (NWCC) year-long Social Worker Certificate Program. She is one of 14 graduates from the program offered in 2003. Building on this success is the fact that nine of these students have recently found work with the CHN, while three others are off continuing their educations. With the creation of the HNCFS there’s going to be a need for new skilled positions as support workers, says Susan Williams of the Old Massett Social Development Office (OMSDO).
The Old Massett Village Council (OMVC) and the OMSDO established a need and interest for this certificate program and lobbied the college to offer it on-island, because the NWCC had recently removed its island education facilities.
A steering committee of interested community partners, including Sharon Matthews and Florence Lockyer from the OMVE department and Community Futures Art Lew and Roberta Parnell, worked together with island graduates from former social service programs to determine what enhancements would be made to the new program, especially towards First Nation concerns.
The certificate program was extended from two semesters to three, to allow room for culturally relevant workshops. One such workshop offered was “Guiding Circles” that dealt with aboriginal perspectives on finding career paths. Ms Bell particularly enjoyed the Haida cultural workshops focusing on the history and archaeology of Haida Gwaii.
At the end of the certificate program students were required to participate in a six-week practicum with local agencies. Miss Bell was paired up with Ms. Williams at the OMSDO. She says this helped her prepare for her new position with HNCFS. “It was easier starting this job because of Susan (Williams) and my practicum, and it was easier for us students to get jobs here (on-island), because we’ve already done work with people here.”
The certificate program’s steering committee called for local expertise and talent to instruct the courses. Roberta Parnell, Susan Williams, and Monica Brown were course instructors and also graduates from the 1989 NWCC Social Workers Program. Working as a mentor, Ms. Brown said she found it a privilege to teach a program she had taken years ago, calling it a fabulous experience.
“With our experience going through the course work, I realized that there were a lack of resources like therapists,” said Ms. Bell. “It makes you aware of the challenges you’re going to face.”
A recent report said Haida Gwaii has one of the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and suicides in the province. With these existing challenges and others, available social services are in high demand, but she remains optimistic. “There’s a lack of support services, but with the changeover of child care I think there will be more. We need to build on our own resources like foster homes.”
There are about 60 Haida children in foster care and most of them are off-island. “We’re trying to get them to know their extended families and see if there’s a possible extended-family placement here on-island,” said Ms Bell. With self-governance she believes greater progress will be made. “It’s going to include more input with the families of the children in care and keep a connection (to the island) so they know they have a place.”
The certificate program has also helped generate economic development. Ms. Williams believes this is due to a dynamic shift from off-island training to ‘paid for support training.’ This makes education cost effective because students no longer have to travel, relocate and adapt to a new environment. As well students also have family and local support networks to aid them, and locally hired instructors.
The unemployment rate in Old Massett is at about 70 per cent. “There needs to be a great deal more input into the education programs to meet the needs of the community,” said Ms. Williams.
Success building upon success is Mrs. Parnell’s formula. “A lot of people have to go off-island for education and when you see people doing it locally, others see it’s within reach and possible.”
Robert Williams, another success story from the certificate program, recently found work in Old Massett as a youth worker. Being a father of teenage children, has already given him some experience, but he feels the program didn’t fully prepare him for his new position.
“It was a good start, but two years would have been more beneficial, working on interpersonal and counseling skills.” He looks forward to continuing his social service education with a diploma or degree program. Elizabeth Moore, auxiliary instructor, echoed this sentiment, saying she wouldn’t stop once she started an education, but would see it through to the diploma stage. She also tutored in Old Massett twice per week on paper writing, Internet searches, attachments and e-mails, bringing students up-to-date on the tech-age.
Returning to school in his early forties was a challenge for Mr. Williams, but the program helped him through a personal transition from working outdoors where he had sustained injuries, to finding new avenues of work. “Some of these people haven’t been to school in 20 years. This needs to be celebrated,” said Mrs. Parnell.
“I learned a lot from every course and expanded the knowledge I did have,” Mr. Williams said, “and I really liked the psychology, what’s behind the issues.” But what’s often behind the issues can be difficult to process as a new social worker. “Working with youth, grief and loss are common for us here on a yearly basis. I believe it’s time for us as a community to move forward.”
Miss Bell also expressed her concern about the process. “It can be stressing on family. I didn’t realize that I would be dealing with children in care that are a part of my family.”
Adele Widen is no stranger to children with three of her own. She’s a recent graduate, who hopes to find employment as an outreach worker with the community. As for accommodating her family life, she said she had no problem adjusting, but instead it came down to the individual, whether a person could handle it or not.
“I really enjoyed the classes. The teachers were awesome, because they made it fun to learn,” said Ms Widen, who raptly recalls warm-up exercises before class, “everyone would loosen up and boogie with their bodies.”
Under the guidance of the Haida Tribal Society, both Skidegate and Old Massett, will work together to develop the new system. “The end goal is to be a service provider in years to come for the entire island,” said Ms Williams. “This is a new approach to working with families, strengthening them and preserving them.”
Miss Brown strongly supports the new approach and says the process will ultimately lead to more positive outcomes in Haida families and children’s lives.
The HNCFS will be holding information seminars in Skidegate at the small hall January 31 from 5 to 9 pm and February 1 from 10 am to 4 pm. Meetings then will be held in Old Massett at the OMVC gym on February 2nd from 5 to 9 pm, and again on the 3rd from 10 am to 4 pm.