Unheard and disrespected. That’s how many Quw’utsun families within the child welfare system feel, according to a final report of the Q’ushin’tul Project. Project leaders Madeline (Mal) Joe and Jenny George, both members of Cowichan Tribes, presented their findings on Nov. 12 to a gathering of about 50 people at the Duncan Indian Shaker Church.
The project, Joe says, was a response to the high rates of children and youth in care in Cowichan, and the overrepresentation of local Indigenous children in care. The child welfare system is administered by the agency Lalum’utul’ Smun’eem Child and Family Services on Cowichan Tribes reserve land and by the Ministry of Children and Family Development elsewhere in Cowichan. (The federal government is in the process of settling a class-action lawsuit over its failure to adequately fund and support on-reserve child welfare systems.)
Joe and George consulted with 364 people in creating the needs assessment. They included families with direct experience in the child welfare system, service providers and community leaders. The project was supported by a panel of volunteer advisors. Sonia Furstenau, MLA for the Cowichan Valley, secured funding through a private donor.
The report found a lack of services and supports that are informed by awareness of Quw’utsun culture and the history of colonization and trauma in the Quw’utsun community. (Joe said the full report will be available online next week.)
Joe acknowledged that the consultation process reopened wounds for many families. She said that it’s imperative for the whole community to respond now to what was heard. The presentation included specific action items for service providers, Cowichan Tribes leadership and Quw’utsun community members.
The Discourse Cowichan spoke with Joe and George following their presentation.
What did you learn from this process of listening to people in your community, that you didn’t already know?
George: “All of the pain that they were going through, dealing with the social workers, and not having the children in their care. Whether they be grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents. I knew that there was pain in the community, but when we did some of the consultation, it was quite overwhelming. There was a lot of pain. I think that was the hardest for me to deal with and to see.”
Joe: “It was also good to know that those that are hurting also had strength to come forward and talk to us in this consultation process … Knowing that there were people who could identify and relate to their own issues within their family and their community was so important. Because in the end, they are members that have a right to belong here. And they just didn’t have that avenue to put their voices out there. And Jenny and I were the train to get them there.”
This evening, I heard people say that no one has done this work before. What does it mean to open up this conversation?
George: “It’s a good beginning. Our Hul’qumi’num word for ‘walk together,’ q’ushin’tul, is a great start. I like Mal’s words, earlier: We have to do it. No more beating around the bush and let’s get it all done, all of us. Everybody in the room has a part with working with children or youth or babies. I’m glad some of our governance was here, our chief and council, we had two members here. I’m hoping that we all start to work together, walk together and be as one.”
It was said earlier that we were talking about the same things 50 years ago. Do you feel like it’s different now, that we can move forward in a better way?
Joe: “I feel it is a little bit different. But I think that even though they went 20 steps forward, they still came back ten steps. And sometimes when we have people that are within our own systems, our own communities, within our own leadership, sometimes they lose the focus of the successes that have happened. And they have forgot about pieces like this. When I talked about, I’ve seen this in the 1960s, I have seen the social housing issues, I have lived the poverty in the child welfare. I have been the third generation to residential school. I know what it’s like to see community hurt. And when nobody helps them, and especially at the leadership level, then that’s when they go back ten steps.”
George: “It’s just my hope and dream that we get to a place where we can all meet together and talk with each other. Like, somebody at House of Friendship, Lalum’utul’ Smun’eem, the ministry, Matraea (the midwifery centre.) Somebody needs to rally us all together to get it going and keep it going.”
What do people outside your community need to understand about this?
George: “I think that with the amount of people here that are not from our Cowichan territory, I think it’s opening their eyes. Like [someone at the gathering] said there: Open your mind, your ears and your heart. And hopefully people are doing that. And they understand the situations that our people live with. The trauma and the colonization impacts, poverty, addictions, mental health. There’s a whole slew of them. And I hope that people’s eyes and ears and hearts are opened and that we’ll all get to work together and we have support from people outside our community to support us one day.”
Joe: “I think it’s time to start taking those walls down and say, this is a community that is in trauma, this is a community that is in a crisis, and this community has opened up the doors through the Q’ushin’tul Project to say that there needs to be these true goals and visions that need to be followed through.”
Anything you’d like to add?
Joe: “I would like to say that I’m glad that we’ve had media here today, to be able to put a little bit more light onto this issue. It has been a challenge to have other local media and regional media look at this issue. And it’s an important one. As Cowichan Tribes being the largest nation within British Columbia, we also have the largest amount of children that are going in for removal. Right across Canada, nobody knows that this big, horrendous problem is existing in this community that is on our world map, on our national map.”
“We have a lot of successes. Well, we are not going to be able to be successful until we start putting and implementing services and programs for our people. And that includes enhancing education for our children and youth, building up the skills of adults through skills-based education programs, and also to continue to take a look at measures that are interconnected with off-reserve agencies. And state that at some point there needs to be that bridge that comes across and says, ‘Welcome to our territory.’”
George: “It was an honour for me to meet with our people to hear their stories. I was glad to hear their stories and feel their pain and also be a voice for them … We have a long way to go. But we’ll get there. As long as we all chip away at it, and work together, walk together and support each other.”