Building a Professional Foundation as a New or Aspiring Social Worker

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1 1 Building a Professional Foundation as a New or Aspiring Social Worker If you are working or planning on working in the social work field there is a high chance that at some point in time during your career you will be working with a First Nations individual or family. During your work with this person you may find some degree of resistance or hostility directed towards you. Clearly this is not speaking for all First Nations people; many may be genuinely kind and friendly when meeting with you. However, the purpose of this article is to increase your awareness of white privilege, what white privilege means and also to better understand the causes of social problems in First Nations communities. Without the proper understanding of both of these topics, it could become very difficult to build a strong therapeutic relationship with your First Nations clients. There are several wonderful therapeutic modalities to use with residential schools survivors and/or families suffering from intergenerational trauma. However, there must be a strong base to build these modalities upon. This base is made up of acceptance to the idea that white privilege does exist as well as a strong understanding of the social impacts that the residential school system has had on First Nations people in Canada. Without a strongly built foundation, almost any modality you use will prove to be ineffective. I have been in the social work field for six years now. I have worked as a front line residential worker, a therapeutic counsellor and now as a supervisor of three programs at Ganohkwasra Family Assault Support Services on the Six Nations territory in Ontario, Canada. My paternal family is from Six Nations; however, I grew up in the city for most of my life. I was fortunate to still have a strong connection with my family at Six Nations throughout my life. During my time as a counsellor I have had a continuously increasing awareness of various social problems that exist on the Six Nations Territory and other Reserves across Canada. The media portrays problems such as: protests, land claim disputes, suicides and car chases, however, the problems that exist are much deeper rooted. Why are

2 2 we like this? Almost all of these social problems can be linked to the experience in the residential school system. This article is not about residential schools. It is important to talk briefly about them in order to fully comprehend what this article is about and to begin to construct your own base of understanding of where the cycles of social problems were created for First Nations people. So that is where I will begin. Canada is one of the world s most highly respected countries. It is known for its promotion of peace and acceptance of all ethnicities and cultures. The history of residential schools in Canada has, for the most part, not been taught in the mainstream Canadian school curricula. The majority of Canadian citizens do not have any knowledge of what residential schools were and if they have heard of the schools, they do not fully understand the abuse that took place at these schools as well as the effects they continue to have on First Nations communities. First Nations people have suffered in so many areas as a result of residential schools. The Canadian government claimed that residential schools were a great opportunity for First Nations children to learn about religion, farming, sewing, and speaking English. The schools were funded by the Canadian government and run majorly by the Catholic and Anglican churches. While attending these schools, the students were exposed to physical, emotional and sexual violence at the hands of the school staff. The children were not allowed to speak their traditional languages, nor practice any ceremonies, had little or no contact with their siblings who were attending the same school or their families back home. Many children tried to escape from the schools but died in the process. Most children who did graduate from the school came back to their reserves without any knowledge of their language, family or culture. This created a cycle of violence within families. Parents of the children blamed each other. Some turned to drinking or drugs to help cope with the loss they had suffered and the shame they felt. Some children who returned blamed their parents for having been taken to the

3 3 schools. Many of the residential school students who did return ended up being ashamed of their ancestry. Some of the students never returned to their families on the reserve and ended up lost in a city. Most children, who did return home, had never been shown how to love and nurture. By the time they had their own children, the only parenting skills they had been exposed to were what they were shown at the residential schools: physical abuse if someone did something wrong and sexual abuse to show someone you loved them. This parenting dynamic of physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse has been passed down to each generation. The government s plan was to "kill the Indian in the child" as Duncan Campbell Scott (Head of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932) notoriously stated. The Canadian government stated that they created these schools to help better the lives of all First Nations people. The hidden agenda was really to assimilate all native people into Canadian citizens. They did this by taking the children away and committing cultural genocide. The last residential school closed just 17 years ago in This has been a very brief overview on the history of residential schools in Canada. I encourage anyone who is reading this article and does not know the history of residential schools in Canada to do some research on them as well as other legislation that has contributed to the attempted assimilation of First Nations people. The base of understanding for this article has been created by learning briefly about residential schools. We can now begin another layer, which is the understanding and accepting that white privilege does exist. It may be difficult to come to terms with the idea that if you are Caucasian or white that you automatically have white privilege. White privilege is a phenomenon that is not spoken of very often. White privilege is having a born advantage over others who are not white. Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as having an invisible knapsack full of various tools to help you live and succeed in society (McIntosh, 1988). Accepting that you do have white privilege does not mean that you are

4 4 racially prejudiced. However, you cannot eliminate your white privilege. If you are white you will always have it throughout your entire life. Accepting and becoming aware of white privilege will help you as a professional when working with First Nations people. Some examples of white privilege are: being able to shop at a store without being followed by a store employee; succeeding without being called a credit to your race; paying at a store without the color of your skin creating doubt in the ability to pay; getting an alcoholic beverage while out at a restaurant without being labeled as another drunk member of your race; knowing that your people s history will be taught to your children in the curriculum at their schools and also knowing your people s opinions will be represented in your government. These are just some examples but the list could continue on and on. Accepting that white privilege does exist and being aware of it when working with other ethnic backgrounds, particularly First Nations will only benefit your therapeutic relationships with them. Something as simple as being dressed in business attire; having lots of degrees on your wall or even the way your desk is positioned could play a part in how a new client responds to your attempt at building a therapeutic relationship with them. Obviously, any client may react to a trigger they have or transference for almost any reason. First Nations people have endured a great deal of trauma since contact. This trauma has been part of an ongoing attempt of oppression, colonization, and assimilation. Residential schools were a major part of these attempts. The majority of the staff at the residential schools was white and the Canadian government was made up by white government officials. It is safe to say that First Nations people have lots of trust issues when working with a white social worker, and for good reasons. It is important not to internalize some of the coldness or resistance that you may encounter from your First Nations clients/families. Understand that it may not be a reflection of something you have done wrong as a professional. The resistance is from hundreds of years of colonization, oppression, racism, cultural

5 5 and racial genocide as well as attempted assimilation. My skin is fair and my mother is white. I have to always be conscious of these factors and have to work hard at building trust in therapeutic relationships with my First Nations people. There have been many incidences where a First Nations client will question me about my ethnic background during an initial contact. They may not ask outright if I am Native, but some may. When I am faced with questions about who my family is, or where I grew up, I gladly answer with the truth. I grew up in the city, my father s family is from Six Nations and yes I am Native. It is important not to become offended or upset about some of the questions that you may be asked. Answering honestly and respectfully will begin to build the trust with your First Nations client. Understanding the effects that the residential school system has had on First Nations communities, the negative social impacts, and harmful social cycles that have been created will help strengthen your foundation as a social worker. Also, accepting that white privilege exists and is something you will always have, regardless of whether you wanted it or not, will add yet another strengthening layer to your foundation. It is well known that a poorly constructed foundation will eventually crumble when you begin to build upon it. Mother Earth is a foundation to all. Without her base soil nothing will grow. No plants, trees or flowers. Without the trees and plants we will not have the air we need to live. So the most important step to becoming a successful and effective social worker with any non-white person is by understanding that nothing will be able to exist unless a proper foundation is well built. Brody Thomas Ganohkwasra-Outreach Services Supervisor

6 6 References McIntosh. P. (1988). White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women s Studies. Retrieved from

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