Meet 2 northerners teaching B.C. foster parents the value of passing on Indigenous cultures

Rusty Whitford and Alex Martel, former foster parent and son, host two-hour workshops in the Metro Vancouver area to teach prospective foster parents how Indigenous culture can improve the quality of life for Indigenous children in the system.

Rusty Whitford and Alex Martel host two-hour workshops in the Metro Vancouver area

Alex Martel, left, and Rusty Whitford, right, offer two-hour workshops in the Metro Vancouver area to teach non-Indigenous foster parents about the benefits of introducing their foster children to culture and traditional practices. (Submitted by Rusty Whitford)

Alex Martel travelled 1,800 kilometres from Surrey, B.C., to his home community of K'atl'odeeche First Nation near Hay River, N.W.T., for the first time when he was 17.

Before then, he knew nothing about his Indigenous roots. 

"I was incredibly lost and I didn't know how to express it," said the makeup artist, who now lives in New Westminster, B.C.

While on the reserve, Martel and his former foster parent Rusty Whitford attended powwows, met his six brothers and sisters for the first time, and volunteered with the community's elders. 

By exposing him to his culture ... he slowly started to gain his voice back.- Rusty Whitford, social worker and foster parent

The elders told Martel that he had a calming, free spirit inside of him. That's the moment he first remembers being proud of his identity. 

"Hearing those things from the elders snapped something in me," Martel said. "I'm actually accepted in a community [without] judgment." 

After that, said Whitford, Martel transformed from a quiet teenager with mental health struggles into a confident young man who has paintings of K'atl'odeeche images, like the raven and a big blue flower, all over his bedroom walls. 

"By exposing him to his culture ... he slowly started to gain his voice back," Whitford said. 

'It helps improve the children's self-esteem'

Martel and Whitford now host two-hour workshops in the Metro Vancouver area that teach non-Indigenous foster parents the importance of culture in their children's lives. 

Rusty Whitford, left, and Alex Martel, right, pose for a photo. Martel says he was uncomfortable hearing about his culture at first, but embraced it over time. (Submitted by Rusty Whitford)

Whitford, who is Métis from Fort Smith, N.W.T., said he really has to sell the idea of cultural practices to non-Indigenous foster families because few understand how much it can help. 

"It helps improve the children's self-esteem, it helps improve belonging, teamwork," Whitford said. "They're learning communication with one another." 

The two, who say they now have an uncle-nephew relationship, developed the workshop together to blend Whitford's experience as a social worker with Martel's lived experience growing up in foster care. 

Parents who attend the course are given a pamphlet with concrete examples of how to bring culture into every day scenarios at home. 

The suggestions include attending National Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations in June, going to drumming events as a family, and purchasing Indigenous art and other symbols for the child.

"Throw out your parenting book and be ready to be curious, relearn and start over," the pamphlet reads. 

Whitford also peppers the presentation with some anecdotes he's used at home. 

"When my boys [weren't] sharing something, [I'd] remind them of the wolf story — about how wolves work together as a family, a pack, and they share," Whitford said. "A lone wolf will not survive in the wild." 

Foster parents should do the work to embrace culture  

Whitford and Martel came together after Whitford got a call from one of his neighbours asking to take in Martel while the family was disputing who had custody. 

Martel, who was 15 at the time, said he knew he was Indigenous, but didn't know where he came from. 

Culture saves lives, because without it, I don't know where I would be right now.- Alex Martel, make-up artist and former foster child

When taking in an Indigenous foster child, social workers in British Columbia receive reference documents that identify which nation the child belongs to, Whitford explained. From these documents, Whitford learned that Martel was from K'atl'odeeche First Nation in the Northwest Territories. 

So, he started slowly incorporating elements of Martel's culture into their home. 

"I was so uncomfortable [at first], I felt like I was in a weird environment that I wasn't used to," Martel recalls. "Then once [Whitford] really explained everything … eventually I got really into it." 

Whitford and Martel no longer live together, but they make time every year to go pick wild sage in Merritt, B.C., and try to plan hunting trips with extended family in the Northwest Territories as often as possible. 

Martel now wears his regalia with pride. He's hoping that other foster parents will do the work to embrace where Indigenous children come from. 

"Culture really does save lives," said Martel, "because without that, I don't know where I'd be right now."