A new child welfare program run by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en will start supporting aboriginal families in Smithers, Moricetown and Hagwilget this March.
Rooted in Wet’suwet’en traditions, staff say the program will serve the community better than the Western-orientated services run by the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development.
“I feel that we’ve gone as far as we can,” says Gretchen Woodman, an MCFD social worker who has been working with Wet’suwet’en families for 11 years.
“It’s not about social workers trying to be nicer—we have structural flaws in a system that don’t enable good community practice.”
John Risdale agrees. A member of the Tsayu clan and a long-time director at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, Risdale said it’s key that Wet’suwet’en run their own child and family services.
“Our laws are simple, straight to the heart,” he said. “When you put too much of a Eurocentric view into it, then you forget what you’re there for.”
Called Anuk Nu’At’en Ba’ glgh’iyi z’ilhdic, or ANABIP, the program starts with a small peace-tea ceremony that gathers the maternal grandmother, aunts and other members of a family’s mother clan.
Guided by a support worker, members of the mother clan will begin talking through what are often tough family conversations—the toughest of which centre around foster care.
When it comes to foster care, both Woodman and Risdale said they know the stakes are high.
Of the 989 children who are currently in northern B.C. foster homes, 78 per cent are aboriginal. And in her years as a social worker, Woodman said that are typically more Wet’suwet’en children in care homes down south than there are in their traditional territory.
“We strongly believe that there are many healthy Wet’suwet’en people who could become foster parents,” she said. “We feel that we’re better positioned to find those people.”
Although the ministry has improved in recent years by allowing “kith and kin” agreements that let relatives or even close family friends become foster parents, Woodman said ANABIP will cast a wider net.
If a peace tea gathering needs extra help, for example, they can call on the family’s father clan, who are related by marriage.
“ANABIP belongs to the Wet’suwet’en,” Risdale said. “We need to drop that shield and let people know they have the power to step forward.”
Although foster care is a high priority, ANABIP gatherings can also be used to simply reconnect Wet’suwet’en youth with their land and culture.
Risdale is himself an example of someone whose upbringing doesn’t fit with Western ideas of child rearing.
When he was 16 years old, Risdale and another boy his age were left to live alone through a whole winter, camping and trapping between the Nadina and Tsalit mountains.
“That was probably one of the greatest winters of my life, and the first month was very uncomfortable,” he said with a smile.
Risdale said that although the winter camp was a key part of growing up Wet’suwet’en, his test was one of the last to happen here.
Today, Risdale parents might be accused of negligence for sending their sons out alone that long. But his family knew exactly where he was, he said, and in fact many people in the community bent the rules rules by dropping off goodie boxes in the boys’ camp whenever they went out snowshoeing.
Three years ago, Risdale said he was ready to take on the hereditary chief name, Na’moks.
“If you’re not ready to take the name, they won’t give it to you—you’ve got to prove yourself,” he explained. “Every day is a test.”
Learning to live on the territory that winter was one reason Risdale said he felt ready.
Although he is well aware what a challenge it will be, Risdale hopes ANABIP and future Wet’suwet’en child services will give more young Wet’suwet’en that same connection to the land.
“If you don’t have land, you don’t have connection,” he said. “If you don’t have connection, you don’t have history. If you don’t have history, you don’t know where you come from.”