Reflections on the 2019 Indigenous Child and Family Well Being Conference

The 2019 Indigenous Child and Family Well Being Conference gathered over three hundred child welfare workers, agency administrators, foster parents, government officials, and many more. From November 19th to the 21st, in the beautiful Casino Rama Resort in Orillia, attendees networked, discussed ideas, and heard from speakers from a range of professional backgrounds, each with a unique message.

The conference began with a sunrise ceremony led by Liz Babin and Bob Sutherland, and an opening ceremony with drums from Anishnaabe Abinoojii Family Services, Nogdawindamin Family and Community Services, Weechi-it-te-win Family Services Inc., and Treaty #9, who reminded attendees of the purpose of the gathering before the week began.

Mike Martin, Executive Director of Native American Community services, set the tone of the gathering by reminding all in attendance to pursue the good mind, friendship, and peace, and to focus on mutuality and respect.

He also reminded the audience that learning to care for oneself is the most important step towards learning to care for others, noting, “Pain not transformed is transferred.”

With that, the first day’s workshops kicked off. Eight presenters led workshops, including Jay Lomax from Native Child and Family Services (NCFST), who led a workshop on the new kin finding unit he supervises and spoke about his experience as an adopted child who reconnected with his biological parents as an adult.

“Culture is coming together,” Mr. Lomax said. “When we are close to our spirit, we do not feel alone.”

In the afternoon, attendees heard from Nathalie Nepton, Executive Director of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), and Vanessa Follon, the Regional Lead for Jordan’s Principle, who answered questions from the audience, and Nicole Bonnie, CEO of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) spoke about the relationship-building journey.

The second day began with Sarah Clarke, Principal, Clarke Child and Family Law, who provided the conference with the history of legal research and advocacy over ten years that led to the landmark ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal finding Canada guilty of racially discriminating against First Nations children on reserve by underfunding our child and family welfare services.

Workshops explored topics such as the healing and recovery journey, wellness serving in a bicultural context, and social determinants of health. Diane Lauzon, Program Supervisor for Kunuwanimano Child and Family Services, led a workshop on recruitment and repatriation that included an exercise that brought participants to tears.

“It was a beautiful, emotional morning,” Ms. Lauzon remarked. “It was productive, but it also made us all feel so bonded.”

The afternoon struck the same note, with Dr. Dirk Huyer, Chief Coroner for Ontario, along with a panel composed of his staff, discussed efforts being made to right past wrongs and move toward a more culturally safe approach to conducting death reviews.

“One youth suicide is way too many,” Dr. Huyer said.

Jesse Ranville, a train conductor and author, and Nyree Kakeeway, a current Social Work MSW student, both spoke about their time in the child welfare system. Though they both had very different stories, they shared similar messages: that the status quo is not acceptable, and that their success stories should not be exceptions to the rule.

Mr. Ranville presented as the ending of the second day approached, and Ms. Kakeeway began the third day with a reminder to always keep the child’s perspective in mind.

“Kids don’t understand policy and the government and why they can’t see their siblings or why it’s so difficult to go on a sleepover or class trip – they only know what they see, and what they see is not good,” Ms. Kakeeway said. “Kids in care very quickly lose their voice, and I’m only gaining mine now, sixteen years after exiting the system.

“People tell me I’m the exception to the rule, but there is no difference between me and any other kid in care, so it shouldn’t be so common that kids don’t make it.”

Both presenters inspired tears in almost every person in the ballroom, and both earned standing ovations.

Before the third day’s workshops began, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dube spoke about the function of his office and the process and benefits of alternative dispute resolution. In the afternoon, Brian Beamish, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, as well as a panel composed of his staff, spoke about the role of the IPC and efforts to ensure data is kept safe.

Jill Dunlop, Associate Minister of Children and Women’s Issues, reflected on her role as well as that of the Ministry, saying, “I believe every issue is an opportunity for us to collaborate and find a solution together.”

The traditional closing ceremony was emotional, as attendees danced a circle around the drums during the farewell song and out into the hall to exchange tearful hugs.

The conference was an enormous success made possible by the astounding efforts of the Kunuwanimano Child and Family Services staff. Special thanks go to emcees Chief Jason Gauthier and Luke Nicholas, Shirley Gillis-Kendall, Jesse St-Jean, Andrea Gagnon, Myles Tabobondung, and Sherry Brown. Casino Rama Resort was a wonderful host, and all in attendance contributed to the dialogue the conference facilitated.