Using the art of storytelling, a team of professors from the University of Lethbridge is putting together a project to help understand the experiences Indigenous youth have in southern Alberta when transitioning out of government care.
University of Lethbridge professor Janice Victor is examining how Indigenous youth are disproportionately represented in child welfare systems and the poor outcomes that often occur once these children age out of the system.
According to the university, Victor intends to be part of the solution strategy put forward by Making the Shift Inc. — a Centre of Excellence of Canada that is trying to shift the focus from management to prevention of youth homelessness.
For this study, she was awarded a grant of $85,580 for her project, Ai’aoskiikowaata, meaning providing guidance to youth, in Blackfoot.
Her project will use a multi-media storytelling methodology, with co-investigator Don McIntyre in the Dhillon School of Business, and post-transition survey with co-investigator Dr. Olu Awosoga in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
“It originally just started with this idea of storytelling for getting youth to be able to share their own knowledge of the child welfare system with their own experiences in it and finding a way to tell their stories but in a safe way,” said Victor.
She is currently looking for participants across southern Alberta, primarily in Lethbridge, Calgary and Medicine Hat. The research team is interested in speaking to around 300 youth who are 30 years old and younger, who have aged out of government care.
The project will have two parts to it. The first part will include a post-transitional survey with statistics on the kind of experiences Indigenous children face once they’ve grown out of foster care.
The second part, which relates to the storytelling aspect of the project, allows participants to tell their story through whichever medium best fits them, whether that’s painting, poetry, short stories, photography or even film.
“The child welfare system, it doesn’t track them afterwards, they basically cut contact, it’s out of privacy,” said Victor.
She adds it’s important to know how many youth have successes and how many struggle later on in life so that the impact of government care on their lives can be known.
“We do research with corrections population, homeless people, all of those elements, and we see a strong correlation with child welfare experiences,” Victor said.
Additionally, multiple studies show that Indigenous children deprived of cultural connections are substantially more susceptible to poor health outcomes, experiencing a higher risk for homelessness, addiction and criminalization.
Blackfoot youth – who make up a significant portion of Indigenous people in southern Alberta – in government systems who are disconnected from their culture are just as vulnerable.
The researcher goes on to say that a significant difference in outcomes is seen when Indigenous youth have a strong connection to their heritage and identity.
“One of the big problems we have is there are not enough Blackfoot foster homes,” said Victor. “We are basically continuing the 60s Scoop in a way because we see that disconnection from culture taking place.”
Dealing with the ramifications of culture loss after the fact is a never-ending cycle of continued government care, where Victor and her colleagues focus on finding strategies to ensure Indigenous children maintain the cultural connections they need while in care.
Gaining the perspective of those who have travelled through the system is invaluable and according to the researcher, storytelling is a natural way to access their lived experiences.
“Through storytelling, you start to see the real struggle youth have and the real underlying questions, the importance of cultural connection and well-being,” she says.
“It’s about an identity they have lost, a way of life.
“One thing we do understand is that childcare services need to be run by the community, they need to be run by Indigenous peoples because they need to have control over raising their children again — as they did for millennia,” she adds.
Victor plans to hold a public exhibit of all the submissions they gather, she says it will take about a year or so to complete the project.
Although, COVID-19 will have an effect of the pace of things.The storytelling aspect, including interviews and the compilation of the stories, does somewhat depend on current social distancing restrictions. A website for potential participants has been set up by Victor at agingoutproject.ca.
Dan Fox is the Supervisor of Blackfoot Language & Culture Program for Kainai Children’s Services and he is providing Victor and her partners with guidance on the project.
He says through his years of experience of working with Blackfoot children in foster care, many have non-Indigenous care takers and adds that having these children actively participate in cultural activities can have a huge positive effect.
“Children making connections as young as one year old when they hear the drumming, when they hear the singing, when they see all these other native kids involved in a group activity,” Fox said.
He also says foster parents must be willing to first take the children to cultural events and be genuinely invested in them.
Fox said sometimes foster parents may just attend these events with the Indigenous children and not actively participate or interact with others, which is not effective when it comes to educating these children about their traditional roots.
Kainai Children’s Services also offers opportunities for foster parents with Indigenous children to attend cultural events, such as pow wows and other gatherings involving storytelling, singing, dancing and drumming.
The organization offers at least one service a month for families to attend, which usually occurs on the third weekend of every month. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted these cultural events.
Fox also worked as a corrections officer prior to his career in children’s services on the Kainai reserve and he says many of the people he encountered had been through the foster care system and hadn’t received the family and cultural connections they craved.