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“Successful divorcee” builds trauma-informed program that works for the people

Elizabeth Robinson runs the Haisla Nation’s Active Measures Program
Liz Robinson showcases her students’ handmade vests, part of the traditional regalia for the Haisla Nation, taken April 25, 2023. (Hunter Wild).

Liz Robinson is the kind of rare person whose presence sets other people’s nervous systems at ease. You feel this sense of calm and security around her. You know that she has a lot to teach, and you have a lot to learn.

Robinson has played many roles in our community. Teacher, student, social worker, leader, cook, mother, grandmother. She is currently the coordinator and instructor of the Active Measures program in Kitimat.

“I’m Haisla First Nation. My parents are the late Tom and Dora Robinson and I’m the ninth of 10 children,” said Robinson.

“I didn’t grow up with drugs or alcohol in my home. I had really good parents. I think that childhood foundation is what has been missing in a lot of First Nations homes. And I think it’s one of the reasons why I was able to achieve the things I’ve done.”

The Active Measures program is a 10-month program at the Kitimat Valley Institute funded by the Haisla Nation Council. The program has run for seven years and does life-changing work with some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Robinson’s trauma-informed approach to helping those who need help has saved and healed many lives. Applications can be found on the Haisla Nation Council website.

Students of the course learn life-changing mental health, social and communication skills that improve the quality of their personal and professional relationships, such as healthy communication, how to have a non-violent argument with a loved one, how to take care of their nutritional needs, and most importantly that they are seen and heard and loved.

Many of Robinson’s students have achieved full-time employment and engaged in further education.

“The graduates of the Active Measures program are bringing their family members into the program,” said Robinson.

“I left high school at 16 and followed my sister to college where I took my cook training.

“I worked for 15 years cooking professionally. I hurt my back and had to change professions. And that’s when I got into the field of counselling.”

Robinson earned her community addiction certification at Nechi Drugs and Alcohol Training and Research Institute in Edmonton.

“And then the director encouraged me. ‘You’ve got to go to the university.’ So, I went and got a bachelor of arts, majored in psychology and minored in First Nations. And from there, I went into a master’s in psychology. I wanted to specialize in child psychology.

“When I minored in First Nations studies, I learned the extent of colonization with the Canadian government. Specifically the impact of North American residential schools. Up until that point, I knew nothing because we weren’t taught in school, right?

“And at that point, I started really rethinking about where my life was going and what I wanted to do with it and realized we needed help, right? We needed help. So I shifted gears and went into psychology to learn how to become a counsellor.”

Bu she wanted to become a psychologist.

“My father was the highest-ranking chief and my mother was one of the first First Nation’s social workers, so I had a good foundation of knowledge from them. At the end of the Master’s program, my thesis was refused in 2004. My thesis was refused because it was founded on Indigenous ceremonies, medicine, spirituality and our clan system. To quote the ethics professor, it was founded on ‘hocus-pocus.

“I had my ceremonies in there, my spirituality in there, the use of medicines, the power of ceremony and our feasting system, which was witnessing, it was our political system, it was our social order, it was our government and it was how we need to, as people, treat one another and look after the lands and waters.”

“So I withdrew from that and I thought ‘Okay what am I going to do now?’ I still realized from doing my addiction counselling, how much our people were hurting. So I became more and more involved in my social work.”

She went back to school, got a bachelor of social work degree and went into social work and child protection. She thought, what the system needed at the decision-making was an “educated Indian woman, a mother and grandmother who was born and raised on a reserve.”

But she found it wasn’t working.

“It was a real blow because so many of our children continue to suffer at the hands of a system that’s not built for Indian people. It doesn’t operate for us. It’s not based on our well-being or maintaining our language and culture.

“I moved away from social work and into the field of trauma recovery. A previous director of HNC education, Tanya Rexin asked me to develop a trauma recovery upgrading and pre-employment program after reading my resume.”

The active measures program was first initiated by the federal government to reduce the number of people on social assistance on reservations in Canada.

“It failed. They gave it $33,000 a year and that was supposed to pay wages, cost of program, cost of materials, transit, everything. Of course, it didn’t work.

“At the time it was upgrading and a little bit of life skills. When I looked at that program I thought, ‘No wonder it doesn’t work.’ Not only is it underfunded but it’s still being run by people who weren’t born and raised on a reserve, weren’t even Indigenous themselves. So how could they know how to help us, in a creative and meaningful way?”

With her education and lived experience she built a program that would work.

“I’ve been divorced twice. I consider myself a successful divorcee because I didn’t start drinking and drugging. I didn’t get involved in family violence, and I looked after my children. I maintained my education and my well-being, which is why I say I’m a successful divorcee. And that’s not anything to sneeze at these days. Anytime you lose a relationship that’s trauma. It hurts. It hurt me.

“My dad used to say whenever things got tough, ‘chin up, keep going. Who’s lined up at the door to pay your bills? Nobody.’ So the strong teaching of ‘do your best and keep going,’ is a strong teaching that has stayed with me from my late parents. And so when I started building this program, I went back through all of my psychology, all of my life teachings, my ceremonial teachings, and that’s what this program is founded on.”

Robinson is grateful to the Haisla Nation Chief and Council, previous Employment and Training manager Kailee Gardiner, current manager Kirsten Ryan, Community Resources, clan members, the graduates of the University of Northern British Columbia Haisla culture and language program, Teresa Windsor, Megan Metz and the Nechako-Kitamaat Development Fund Society.

“There are too many community members in my network to thank individually but please know I’m grateful for each of you,” she said.

Liz Robinson can be reached for more information at 250- 632-6151, extension 223, or by email at