I recently saw a photograph my friend took of his young son standing on the steps of the residential school his mother (the boy’s grandmother) had attended before the building was demolished. In the picture, the little boy is proudly raising his fist in the air, wearing a beautifully woven cedar hat. The building looks weak and decrepit. I can assure you I’ve never been more moved by an image.
Everyone who sees that photograph will experience something different. For me, my heart welled with love, gratitude, even joy. I saw in it the strength of culture, pride, and persistent love. I saw that the people are winning. Then I felt rage that they’ve had to fight at all, and took comfort in the shabby condition of the bricks. I took some hope from that, felt cautious about my hope, and then looked at the boy one more time and felt a big yes.
In a recent CYC-online article, Heather Modlin observes that Child and Youth Care (CYC) is taken up in different ways throughout our field. For some, “challenging the status quo” is a priority, while for others the priority is providing “direct assistance.” I would add (and assume Modlin would agree) that much of the time these are not at all competing commitments. In fact, I will argue that they never are.
In the article, Modlin also cautions we be careful not to push the young people we work with to adopt our agendas. I couldn’t agree more: that would be residential school all over again. In this post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada, it is our responsibility now to be more self-reflective than ever about how we engage in practice and what informs our decisions. This is not about intellectualizing. This is about justice.
What I’m saying is that I agree (and I re-iterate because it is so important) that children and all people have the right to self-determination. I also agree that what most children want is to be included and have fun. But the important question to ask ourselves is what do we do with that information?
To me these ideas are inherently political because as it stands, it is a fact that not all children have equal opportunities to those things. This is not to say that we should turn young people into activists. It is to say, however, that we have a responsibility – as those who’ve decided that prioritizing the well-being of children, youth, and families is a central commitment of our lives – to address unjust conditions that limit the access some children have to quality of life.
In order to clarify my point and to respond to the question ‘what do we do?’, I’d like to share a couple of excerpts from an important new book called Determinants of Indigenous Peoples’ Health in Canada: Beyond the Social. To avoid abstractions I will focus on a particular chapter by Chandler and Dunlop in which the issue of youth suicide prevention is discussed. The authors assert that painting suicide as an ‘Indigenous’ issue is not only inaccurate but it leads us astray. In British Columbia, for example, with over 200 distinct First Nation bands,
… more or less half of the Indigenous communities in the province have no (i.e., zero, have never had any) youth suicides – a status that is repeated across 15 years of study … . By sharp contrast, other less fortunate bands within the province suffer youth suicide rates an agonizing 1000-plus times the national average. (p. 87)
By erasing this diversity and creating averages to represent rates of youth suicide in Indigenous communities in general, we not only completely misrepresent reality, we also miss the opportunity to learn about what is happening in the communities at each end of this spectrum. Fortunately, Chandler and Dunlop have resisted this generalizing tendency and the answer to the question of what contributes to such disparity is “no longer a matter for mere speculation.”
The clear answer provided by our program of research is that communities that have low to absent youth suicide rates are different from their opposite numbers in that they are marked by multiple community-level efforts to achieve a high level of ownership of their own cultural past, and an elevated level of success in controlling their own civic futures. In particular, this means that Indigenous communities with low to absent rates of youth suicide tend to be characterized by such things as self-government, active involvement in attempts to restore title to traditional lands, to preserve Indigenous languages and culture, and to restore the historic place of women in tribal governance. (p. 87)
Despite this strong evidence, we still primarily address suicidality “one individual sufferer at a time” (p. 78). And despite the fact that we have no strong evidence to suggest suicide is predictable, we continue to aim prevention efforts at helping people “somehow divine who is and who is not at serious risk” (p. 84). This illustrates how focussing on direct assistance without acknowledging the context and politics of what is at play may not serve young people in the ways we intend.
And all of this taken together makes clear to me that not understanding the political nature of child and youth well-being is our most likely route to inadvertently pigeon-holing young people into our own (in this case) individually-oriented agendas.
What the photograph described earlier and the particular issue of youth suicide tell me is that the way children are raised is a political endeavour. And what the TRC report reminds us is that we must be vigilant. We must go above and beyond simply wanting children to do well; we must take in the evidence and respond accordingly (and deeply consider what does and doesn’t count as evidence, committing as Chandler and Dunlop do not to accept any old ‘evidence’).
It is evident when we see the calls to action the TRC directs at the federal government (regarding child welfare, education, language and culture, health, and justice) and consider the many settings in which CYC practitioners find themselves, that these calls to action are relevant for our practice with children and families. And the principles of reconciliation identified in the TRC report speak to the heart of CYC: relationship building; closing the gap in social, health, and economic outcomes for all children; nurturing intergenerational connections among youth and Elders; joint leadership; and more. The evidence gathered through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came at a great cost to those who shared their stories publically. We have a responsibility to listen to what we’ve learned from them as we consider our roles in the lives of children and families.
We must do more to respond to complex political realities than presume the only point of intervention is the child him- or herself. This is not to say I am not committed to child-centered practice. I am. But centering the child requires that we cultivate a deep understanding of what each particular child is in the centre of, not seeing the child in isolation or in generalized terms.
I would love to share that photo with you. But while my friend who took it does want it to be used as a tool for dialogue, he does not want his precious son to be the object of the gaze of strangers. I respect their right to self-determination.
 Modlin, H. (2015). The agenda of Child and Youth Care: Political or individual? CYC-Online, issue 200, pp. 152-154. Retrieved 13 October, 2015 from http://www.cyc-net.org/cyc-online/oct2015.pdf
 Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., Lindsay, N. M., & Reading, C. (2015). Determinants of Indigenous peoples’ health in Canada: Beyond the Social. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
This article was peer-edited by Hans Skott-Myhre.
Photo and weaving by Claudia Medina.