New Brunswick

Indigenous social work students call for women's shelters on reserves

Indigenous women in the Maritimes and Quebec need shelters on reserves to keep them safe from domestic violence, including murder, say Indigenous social work students at St. Thomas University.

St. Thomas University students explore urgent issues they hope to solve in their own communities

Jan Marshall, third from left, spoke about domestic violence on reserves in a presentation at the social action fair put on by Indigenous social work students at St. Thomas University. (Oscar Baker III)

Indigenous women in the Maritimes and Quebec need shelters on reserves to keep them safe from domestic violence, including murder, say Indigenous social work students at St. Thomas University.

Twenty-four per cent of Indigenous women become victims of domestic violence, compared with seven per cent of non-Indigenous women, said Jan Marshall, one of three students who made a presentation on the issue at the university's social action fair Tuesday in Fredericton.

Women threatened by violence need a place to turn, she said, yet few reserves in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec have shelters and women often must travel far to find a safe haven.

Illustrations for a display about stopping sexualized violence. (Oscar Baker III)
"We hope, as a group of future social workers, to bring these women's shelters into the communities, so they have somewhere that they feel valued and loved, and they have a safe place to go, in hopes of stopping these women from being missing and murdered."

In addition to a safety net of shelters, Marshall urged social workers to try to address root causes of the violence. The answer, she said, may lie in women returning to a stronger, more traditional role in their communities.

"Before European contact, Aboriginal women were highly valued in their communities for decision-making and being creators of life. ... Europeans came in and brought those ideas where men start to devalue women."

Urgent issues back home

Twenty-eight students are in the Mi'kmaq/Maliseet bachelor of social work program at St. Thomas.

The program is tailored to mature students who may be balancing parenting and work, along with the courses they take in Sackville, N.B. The students, who are all women, are expected to complete 700 hours of practical work before the completion of the program in July.

At the social action fair, 10 groups of students made presentations on urgent social issues in Indigenous communities in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec.

Sandra Germain, program co-ordinator of the St. Thomas University social work program for Indigenous students, said she wants her students to research and identify problems they see in their communities. (Oscar Baker III )
"I think it's important that we, as Mi'kmaq and Maliseet peoples, research, identify and educate ourselves on the social and environmental issues that we face on a day-to-day basis," said Sandra Germain, the program co-ordinator.

Graduates are expected to return to their First Nation communities and continue to work for change, she said.

Other presentations at the fair focused on preventing sexually transmitted diseases, harm reduction in substance abuse, access to clean drinking water on Potlotek First Nation in Nova Scotia, and educating people about residential school survivors.

Carolyn Milliea and her group focused on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to educate the public about the history and legacy of residential schools. A display called "100 years of loss" focused on educational materials.

"I think it's important for me because I've worked with residential school survivors, because I've seen them grow from being so timid and shy and withdrawn to now they're like out there," said Milliea. "They're telling their truth. The truth of what happened at residential schools, and what happened after and now."

Changing child and family services

Another group addressed the need for cultural awareness in child and family services for First Nations people in urban areas. The students advocated setting up programs for off-reserve communities that would be similar to those run on reserves and use people who understand Indigenous culture. 

"It presents itself when people who are not Indigenous, and do not have (Indigenous) cultural awareness, go in to try and support children and families, and they do not have that awareness and that understanding and knowledge that Indigenous people have," student Deanna Price said.

Germain has high hopes for students in the Mi'kmaq/Maliseet social work program. In the end, she sees the program as a stepping stone to solving some of the issues facing Indigenous communities.

"My priority is for our people, our students to be able to express themselves to get the message out because this is something that once they get their degrees … we want them to go out there, and we want them to be advocates for their people for the issues that concern them," said Germain.

About the Author

Oscar Baker III is from Elsipogtog First Nation, and St. Augustine, Fla. He is a freelancer based in Wabanaki.