New Brunswick

New graduates in social work return to Indigenous communities

The Mi'kmaq and Maliseet bachelor of social work program incorporates a traditional approach, so graduates can serve First Nations in a way that makes sense to community members.

Mi'kmaq and Maliseet program offers training that's relevant, director says

Many of the graduates will return to their First Nation's communities to help fill the need for social workers. (Ed Hunter/CBC )

It was a day these students worked three years to achieve.

Friday, 27 of 28 students who graduated with bachelor degrees in social work from St. Thomas University were from the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet program.

The need for social workers in Indigenous communities is higher than elsewhere in the Maritimes, faculty members say.

But training for the job in First Nations communities, where most of the graduates will likely head, requires a program that understands traditions.

The Mi'kmaq and Maliseet bachelor of social work program, launched in 2005, is designed to help graduates work with traditional ways in Indigenous communities as they help families and children.

Deanna Price, a mother of four who was among those accepting degrees, said she experienced both success and sacrifice during her education.

Graduate Deanne Price says she's grateful for the support she received from other people as she pursued her degree in social work. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

She said she was inspired to enter social work when she read a story about a soldier who committed suicide.

She realized she wanted to help people who were struggling or who had lost hope.

Price, who expects to work initially with the Department of Social Development in Frederiction, said she felt grateful and proud when she saw her name on the graduation list.

"It's very exciting … to see my name in here," she said. "It's not only me, it is my friends that got me through it, it's my family that got me through it, and just the we made it is very special."

For Katie Joseph, who graduated from the program earlier, it was also an emotional day. She is on the committee that recommends ways to improve the program.

During her training, the support from faculty was crucial, she said.

Katie Joseph says she wouldn't be where she is today if she hadn't taken the social work program. (Pat Richard/CBC )

"They see something that I didn't see," she said. "But, you know, working hard and building what I had and what they encouraged me to do I managed to finish it."

Culturally inclusive program

The Mi'kmaq and Maliseet program only admits Indigenous students who have undergraduate degrees in liberal arts.

Over the past 12 years, 87 students have graduated.

Sandra Germain, the co-ordinator, said more and more students are applying to be part of the social work program in hopes of better understanding problems they see in First Nation communities.

"It's works, the curriculum is relevant, it reflects who they are, where they've been," she said.

"It's also brought out in many of the students the fact that we take the curriculum and make it relevant, they're finally starting to look at things and think the issues that I have and my community have are not about something we did wrong."

The three-year program is only part-time, which allows students, who are mature students for the most part, to keep work and family commitments. 

Germain said the program builds bonds among students that wouldn't be possible in other social work programs.

"Just sitting around the table, they look at each other and say, 'you look like me, you talk like me, you laugh like me,' and so that helps their learning," she said.

"They're not feeling less than, they are equal to, and I think that's where we learn best, in our own communities."