Sts'ailes marks 10 years of keeping apprehended children in community

On the 10-year anniversary of the partnership between MCFD and the Sts'ailes community, the nation's leaders talk about troubles still embedded in Indigenous child welfare in B.C. today.

On 10th anniversary of Snowoyelh, nation says caregivers still overlook importance of connection to culture

Sts'ailes leaders, elders and children mark the 10-year anniversary of the partnership between the Ministry and Children and Family Development and the Sts'ailes. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Two small children stand on cedar boughs in a Stó:lō long house in Sts'ailes, a community in the upper Fraser Valley. 

"In Sts'ailes law, you are "markers" — living monuments to signal how far the community has come," says a leader, placing red and grey wool blankets over their shoulders. 

The children, aged nine and 10, were both apprehended at three weeks of age by the Ministry of Children and Family Development. 

However, rather than being placed in foster homes, a pioneering partnership between Sts'ailes and MCFD called Snowoyelh enabled the children to stay with their parents after they received help to become better caregivers.

"Our children are our most precious resource and keeping them healthy and happy is our goal," said Jolie Lawrence, who manages a part of the Snowoyelh child welfare program called Te Lalem.

The resource program, which has a staff of six, runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Snowoyelh also incudes a drug and alcohol treatment centre that helps parents deal with serious trauma related to residential school, intergenerational effects and other factors.

The two children mark the 10-year anniversary of the partnership, which is still the only one of its kind in B.C.

Jolie Lawrence helps run a successful child welfare program in her community in Sts’ailes. She credits her grandmother for imparting language and culture to her family, and for the strength and desire to see other families succeed. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Hard conversations

Lawrence said Snowoyelh has an "80 percentile success rate," but the community still struggles — not just with keeping kids out of care, but with getting non-Indigenous caregivers to see the value in reunifying children with their community or even having a chance to visit. 

"We struggle with that right to this day, that some [non-Indigenous] caregivers are really reluctant in hearing what we are saying about keeping the kids connected," said Snowoyelh director Nancy Patricia Charlie.

She said the community continues to have hard conversations and fights to ensure Indigenous kids are able to connect to their communities, culture and people.

'We need change': minister

During the ceremony to mark the 10-year anniversary, Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy was gifted a small salmon carving — "because they always go home," as Sts'ailes chief administrative officer Willie Charlie said.

Conroy, in turn, gifted the community a cedar to acknowledge the community's regard and cultural value of the tree and to symbolize the growing of a family.

"There has been a whole history of practices that have happened, right back to residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. [The system] is broken to them and that is something we respect and we have to change — that trajectory of how we provide services," Conroy said.

Sts'ailes matriarch and Snowoyelh director Nancy Patricia Charlie, left, with Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy. Conroy was given a salmon carving to symbolise the longing to 'come home.' (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Charlie said fixing a child welfare system with such dark roots is a daunting task. 

"That system doesn't work for us," he said. 

"You take the child out of the family and put them in their foster home and they generally stay in that system until they age out. By then the families are broken, they don't know each other any more, and it's detaching them from culture."

'I put my foot down'

All of the MCFD social workers on site at Sts'ailes with the authority to remove children are non-Indigenous.

However, Charlie says they operate under Sts'ailes laws and incorporate the community's values and behaviours in all the work they do.

Even apprehensions are done in consultation with the Sts'ailes. Whenever possible, ceremony is used to make big decisions.

In one example, seven lawyers were battling over one Sts'ailes boy over where he should be placed. Charlie said he finally had enough.

"I put my foot down and drew a line in the sand," he said.

The caregivers at the time were reluctant to bring the boy to cultural events, sports or ceremonies, so the legal battle was drawn out, according to Charlie.

"They said he wasn't able to function, that he needed a caregiver with him 24/7. They said he wouldn't take to culture," he said.

Willie Charlie, left, says non-Indigenous caregivers' reluctance to expose Indigenous children to culture is common and needs to change. (Willie Charlie)

But within a month of being in the community, the boy was involved in culture, ceremony, the long house and canoeing. 

"He paddles every day and in his first race came first," Charlie said.

"One of his comments to the social worker was, 'what took you so long to bring me home?'"

Conroy said she hopes to replicate the Sts'ailes model in other communities.

To hear more about this story, click on the audio link below:

On 10th anniversary of Snowoyelh, nation says caregivers still overlook importance of connection to culture. 9:49