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West Coast First Nations’ child care repatriation an early success story

Huu-ay-aht First Nations’ Social Services Project makes strides as children in care declines
Members of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation burn a copy of the Indian Act during a ceremony where they held the first sitting of their legislature and signed a constitution after implementing the historic Maa-nulth Final Agreement in Anacla, B.C., in the early morning hours of Friday April 1, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Melissa Renwick, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter HA-SHILTH-SA

The Huu-ay-aht First Nations has released an independent evaluation of its Social Services Project that reveals the number of children in care is decreasing.

Launched in 2017, the goal of the project was to ensure all Huu-ay-aht children grow up in safe and healthy homes that are connected to culture.

When 21 per cent of the nation’s children were in foster care in 2018, Huu-ay-aht declared a public health emergency.

The nation subsequently secured $4.2 million over five years from the federal government and obtained $300,000 from the province to work towards bringing their children home.

To determine the effectiveness of the project, independent consultant Dr. Suzanne Von Der Porten compiled feedback from 169 Huu-ay-aht citizens, executive council members, child and family wellness team members, as well as the nation’s social services task force. Overall, she said the data from 2020 indicated “many successes.”

“This interim assessment is an important step in implementing the Huu-ay-aht vision for bringing and keeping children in the fold of family and community love, care, and culture,” said Maegen Giltrow, Social Services Panel member and legal counsel. “It is very rewarding to see that 64 per cent of Huu-ay-aht citizens who responded said they felt their family’s safety had seen some or great improvement from the Huu-ay-aht Social Services Project over the previous year. But the assessment is also an important guide to the substantial work that lies ahead.”

Amidst the data collected, 32 per cent of Huu-ay-aht respondents said the Social Services Project has “greatly improved” their family’s safety. An additional 32 per cent said the project has created “some improvement” and 36 per cent said there was “no improvement.”

When respondents were asked if they felt more supported in terms of connection to community, culture and cultural identity, 59 per cent replied “yes.”

In November 2016, there were a total of 220 Huu-ay-aht children under the age of 17. Of those, nine were in the care of extended family and 25 were in external foster care. This number rose to as high as 48 children in care in 2018. Comparatively, there were a total of 271 Huu-ay-aht children in January 2021. While 16 remained in the care of extended family, only seven were in external foster care — a number that varies month-to-month and dropped as low as one in 2020.

The success of the project has also been measured by the number of Huu-ay-aht members reaching out for support, which over the past three months has averaged between 79 to 94 people each month. This has reduced the number of children in temporary care to one, according to the nation.

These supports are offered to all Huu-ay-aht citizens, no matter where they reside and staff is working to ensure that all children in care have contact with family, culture and the nation.

While the interim evaluation of the project indicated that progress has been made, 26 areas of focus were outlined. Securing operational funding for the Oomiiqsu (Mother Centre) in Port Alberni was at the top of the list.

“The Oomiiqsu Mother Centre is our number one priority,” said Huu-ay-aht Councillor Edward R. Johnson. “And to continue to promote our culture to our citizens. That was a huge ask.”

Oomiiqsu, which means “mother” in Nuu-chah-nulth, emerged from one of the 30 recommendations outlined in the 2017 Social Service Project Report. Modelled after the Vancouver Aboriginal Mother Centre, it will host a 12-unit residential program for mothers and their children aged 12 and under.

Access to cultural support staff and elders will allow families to practice their traditions and to learn more about their cultural values in an environment where they are supported. By placing a focus on early intervention, the centre will provide guidance and tools to keep families together and prevent children from entering care, said Huu-ay-aht First Nations in a release.

There is an over-representation of Indigenous children in care across the country. Although Indigenous children comprise only 7.7 per cent of all youngsters aged 14 and under in Canada, they represent 52 per cent of those in foster homes, according to the 2016 census.

The impacts of generational trauma and the aftermath of the residential school system are some of the contributing factors that have led to this over-representation, said Johnson.

“It is important that we hear what is important to our people and those who are helping to raise our children,” Johnson said in a release. “We are pleased to have heard from so many people and this will help us shape the program moving forward to ensure we are meeting the needs of the community so we can achieve our goal of bringing our people home and keeping our children safe and connected to their nation.”

The results of the evaluation will help guide the program moving forward and serve as a benchmark for future evaluations.

“It is encouraging to see the results of this evaluation as it shows we are on the right track,” said Tayii Ḥaw̓ił ƛiišin, Head Hereditary Chief Derek Peters. “We have to continue to move forward with our Ancient Spirit and Modern Minds, while honouring our sacred principles of ʔiisaak (utmost respect), ʔuuʔałuk (taking Care of), and Hišuk ma c̕awak (everything is one).”

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