Healing social work: Injecting Indigenous methodologies into profession key to reducing number of Indigenous children in care

Written by Oscar Baker

Oscar is an award-winning multimedia reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation and St. Augustine, Fla. Winner of the David Adams Richards award for non-fiction writing for The Violent Ones. Follow him on Twitter @oggycane4lyfe

June 28, 2018

A social work group says Indigenous knowledge is key to better professional practices because the current system isn’t working for Indigenous people.  

The Mi’kmaw Wolastoqiyk Association of Social Workers is trying to inject Indigenous knowledge into social work practices. “Many of us have forgotten how our ancestors took care of one another,” said Sandra Germain, executive director of the Mi’kmaq Wolastoqiyk Association of Social Workers.  

Canada has a long history of removing Indigenous children from their families and communities such as residential schools, the 60s Scoop and a child welfare system that over-represents Indigenous children. Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census reported Indigenous children make up seven per cent of the child population in the country, but account for 52 per cent of children in foster care.  

Germain said her association is trying to change that. She explained while they are not a regulatory body they are trying to find Indigenous ways of social work. At a recent conference, talking circles were explored as a way to heal the family as a whole. A talking circle is a traditional way of speaking where everyone is given a chance to speak. They’re offered other supports like smudging and other traditional medicines.   

“Language and culture are the essence of who we are,” said Germain, a fluent Mi’kmaq speaker. 

The Mi’kmaq Maliseet (now Wolastoqiyk) Bachelor of Social Work program at St. Thomas University introduced 84 Indigenous social workers to the world. And the association was a way for them to remain rooted in the Indigenous ways of knowing. In the program, they learned to be certified social workers while Indigenous knowledge and culture played an integral role. But upon graduation and entering the workforce they went into the provinces’ normal practices. 

But Germain says there’s a better way. 

“To begin thinking about how social work may have occurred during our ancestor’s time. How did we care for our children? How did we care for families? As opposed to the systemic ways that aren’t working for us,” said Germain.   

The association is a direct partnership between the Wolastoqiyk and the Mi’kmaq. The two co-presidents come from the two nations. Germain said all nations are welcome but have to know they’re visitors in this territory.  

“We formed the association to be able to provide professional development from an Ilnu (First Peoples) perspective,” said Germain. 

“There’s no spirit in the way mainstream people do social work,” said Germain.  

She said at times the provincial process can feel “automated” and hopes the association can help change that by educating social workers on the importance of Indigenous roots.

Cyndy Baskin, an associate professor in the school of social work at Ryerson University, agrees. “Social work is not (going away from)

Cyndy Baskin, Ryerson University’s School of Social Work. (Oscar Baker III/Wicked Ideas)

Indigenous people, so what we need to do is take that profession but make it ours,” said Baskin, a Mi’kmaw and Celtic woman from Eel River Bar First Nation.  

She said given the history in Canada with Indigenous children, Indigenous people must be at the centre of critical changes that need to be made. Baskin spoke about Indigenous people’s response to trauma, blood memory and said social workers need to know about Indigenous history and the history of residential schools.  

Baskin said every school of social work should include a mandatory course on Indigenous approaches to social work. 

“Our values and our teachings can be applicable to all people of the world.” said Baskin, author of, “Strong Helpers: The Value of Indigenous Knowledges in the Helping Professionals.” 

She said young people struggle with their identity, all while attempting to move out of their parents’ house, but Indigenous youth have to deal with stereotypes and prejudices. Baskin said that’s why it is important Indigenous youth are grounded in their language and culture. 

“Our children need to be with their families, and if they can’t be with their families than they need to be with their communities,” said Baskin.  

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