Connection to Land as a Source of Resilience for Urban Indigenous Youth in Child Welfare
The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Final Report, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples share several recommendations on restorative approaches, and call upon governments and Indigenous bodies to uphold the rights of Indigenous children, youth, and families to have access to cultural education. The Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (VACFSS) has created a living model of restorative Indigenous practice through the restructuring of mainstream program models and policy revision.
Decolonizing Child Welfare in Western Family Laws
If colonization is the disenfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples from land, then decolonization is the reconnection of Indigenous Peoples to land through the education of social relations, knowledge and languages associated with the land 1. Grant et al. (2021) suggest that “developing programs that can reconnect Indigenous youth to land-based engagement is an act of resilience and resistance that can restore relationships, knowledge, and values fractured through colonisation and persisting in our contemporary society.” 2
At its core, the restorative practice represents an important source of wisdom in supporting complex individual and collective human healing processes 3. VACFSS uses supportive and least intrusive measures identified in the Child, Family and Community Services Act. A significant effort that has led to the development of the restorative model of child welfare practice is community-based policy development, program development, and research.
As VACFSS serves urban Indigenous children, youth, and families, it has found creative ways for recreating attachment to land. Touching the Land of Our Relations is a VACFSS program where children in care are supported to visit their home communities at least once during their time in care. The Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness (CRUW) – founded in 2011 – is another cultural intervention the agency has developed in its work toward reconnecting urban Indigenous youth to land as part of their healing journey.
A main objective of CRUW is to engage in culturally relevant and land-based practices that promote holistic and sustainable urban wellness while addressing the intergenerational impacts of colonization and the brutal legacy of residential schools. The CRUW program provides a partnership with the Vancouver-Richmond (VRSDA) based teams to engage both, Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in their respective care. This is another objective of CRUW – to honour the diversity for all children.
CRUW’s Early Beginnings
Dr. Lee Brown, the founding Elder of CRUW, brought the idea to life at VACFSS with the help of Dr. Jeffrey Schiffer, the University of British Columbia (UBC), Institute for Aboriginal Health (IAH), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Musqueam First Nation members, the Indigenous Research Partnerships (IRP) in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden at the UBC Farm, and the Pacific Community Resources Society (PCRS). The theoretical and cultural cornerstones of the program are based on the local territory, teachings, and protocols of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Musqueam First Nation, which is where CRUW takes place. The teachings are, Hands Back and Hands Forward; xʷc̓ic̓əsəm; All My Relations; and One Heart, One Mind 4.
Since the beginning of CRUW, there have been several Elders, Knowledge Keepers, staff, volunteers, community members, as well as other allies, who have consistently been involved in the program. Over the years, the CRUW community has grown to include many dedicated, passionate, and knowledgeable helpers. It is an honour to share this space with our Indigenous knowledge holders and non-Indigenous allies. Elders and Knowledge Keepers such as Freida Gladue, and members of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Musqueam First Nation, sʔəyəɬəq Larry Grant, Dr. Vince Stogan, Shane Pointe, and Leona Sparrow have been instrumental to the experience at CRUW.
CRUW is composed of four programs the core program delivered at xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden at the UBC Farm; the Life Skills & Leadership program; the Cottonwood Community Garden program; and the CRUW Youth Mentor Committee. The youth engage in culturally relevant activities that support positive identity development, emotional well being, and cultural immersion. Topics include restorative justice, anti-bullying, culturally relevant teachings, such as Indigenous oral history, dance, drum-making, smoking salmon, food preservation practices, and cedar weaving, among others. Each day on the farm begins in an opening circle which is led by an Elder. The youth then break into groups and begin the day’s activities consisting of a garden block and engaging in plant-related activities; a group block for engaging in relationship-building; group games; and a workshop block for cultural and food-based activities. CRUW also aims at developing leadership abilities and concrete skill building to support the transition of youth aging into the community.
“The place where things grow”
The CRUW program takes place on the unceded territory of the Musqueam People, in the xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden at the UBC Farm. Elder sʔəyəɬəq Larry Grant gifted the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Musqueam name xʷc̓ic̓əsəm in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language, to the Indigenous Garden at the UBC Farm. The name xʷc̓ic̓əsəm translates to, “the place where things grow.” sʔəyəɬəq Larry Grant explains that xʷc̓ic̓əsəm is more than a garden concept – it represents the teaching of place relationality 5. He says that by creating a relationship to land, a youth recognizes the interdependency between the land and themselves, and how the land provides nourishment. Disenfranchisement from land divides us from the interconnectedness to our relations.
The xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden was established in 2005 by Dr. Eduardo Jovel, a long-time supporter and partner of the CRUW program, and further endorsed by Dr. Rickey Yada, the Dean of the Faculty of Land and Food Systems. Dr. Alannah Young and Wilson Mendes have also provided significant contributions to the CRUW program, and the sense of community for Indigenous youth and other marginalized youth. The xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden and surrounding sacred spaces have been cared for by the Indigenous Research Partnerships (IRP). IRP is a group of programs focused on building meaningful connections to the land and is housed in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at UBC. The CRUW Program’s success is also attributed to community partnerships with IRP, the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, the Institute of Aboriginal Health, the Musqueam First Nation, the First Nations House of Learning, the Pacific Community Resources Society, and other groups, and organizations. In the xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden, the youth also learn the role of medicines, how to plant seeds, transplant seedlings into their plots, and care for both edible and non-edible plants. During the harvest period, youth learn to cook, process, and preserve their yields. Non-edible plants are transformed into medicinal teas, salves, and other products.
Long Term Outcomes
The feedback from social workers is remarkable, says Jessica Knutson, Child and Youth Engagement Worker and Coordinator of CRUW. For youth who engage in the program, there is a renewed sense of pride for where they come from and who they are as Indigenous leaders and non-Indigenous allies in the world. They gain self-confidence when they come to know some of their traditional teachings and cultural protocols. The program provides space for youth to build connections and a sense of community, not only with land, but also with Elders, peers, and staff. There is an opportunity to create lifelong relationships and meet peers who are in similar situations as them. This is of deep importance to the youth, says Knutson.
CRUW creates a sense of belonging and community in a space that is healthy and positive for young people who have been disconnected from culture, community, and traditional territory. In addition to the peer community, there is an intergenerational community that sets the tone, culture, and values of the space CRUW engages in. There is also a grounding that develops from being on the land, says Knutson. “Words cannot adequately express the mere feeling of gathering in such a beautiful and sacred space, but it is a feeling that all the youth, staff, and volunteers have experienced.” The benefits of developing a sense of belonging and pride in one’s identity is also seen in youth who are engaged in other VACFSS cultural and youth programs, such as the Youth Advisory Committee and in the Gathering the CIRCLE programs. “I’ve seen big shifts from youth who come to CRUW. At first, they may not want to smudge or be in circle. They feel uncomfortable with certain things. However, by the end, they embrace and recognize the beauty in their diverse cultures and ancestry,” says Knutson.
One of the greatest indicators of the program’s impact and success is seen in the youth who have participated in the program year after year, and in those who have worked their way from program participant to program staff. The retention rate is also remarkable, over 100 youth have participated in CRUW and 85 per cent have graduated the program. This speaks to the skills and confidence that CRUW has provided them with, and the opportunities and leadership that the youth have stepped into.
The CRUW program is now going into its 12th year, and its success would not be possible without the dedicated support from many individuals and organizations. The Vancouver Foundation sponsored the program’s early beginnings, and current funders include, TELUS, Central City, and the Canadian Council for the Arts. CRUW is now funded by the cultural funding received from the Ministry for Children and Family Development.
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