Ask the expert: Chris Beaton on how community service providers can best support indigenous youth

Chris Beaton - Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Children’s Health Foundation is committed to supporting Island families. This post is part of our Ask the Expert blog series in which our CEO Veronica Carroll interviews experts across Vancouver Island and the surrounding islands on issues affecting children’s health and how families are adapting during these unprecedented times.

This week, Veronica connected with the Executive Director of the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, Chris Beaton. They discussed the unique challenges faced by indigenous youth during the pandemic, how service providers can best provide support to indigenous youth, and what inspires Chris most in his work.

Can you tell me about the programs and services of the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre?

Our vision is to realize a 100 per cent high school graduation rate for indigenous students in Nanaimo/Ladysmith; it’s currently more than 20 percent below the provincial average. Six years ago, we started a community-based learning centre infused with indigenous culture. Staffed with BC certified teachers, the centre has grown from thirteen to 135 learners in kindergarten through grade twelve.

We hold diverse programming for indigenous children, families, and youth ranging from weekly family nights, language initiatives, sessions for youth to reconnect with traditional ways of harvesting, and a youth advisory council that supports youth leadership. Our youth also participate in gatherings that bring them together with other indigenous youth, including Tribal Journeys, Paddling Beyond, and Gathering Our Voices. We also have 60 units of affordable housing with about 300 tenants, the vast majority of which are family units.

Relationships are at the core of our work, and we believe that there’s no silver bullet to the challenges our youth, community, and families face. If you don’t establish a level of trust, especially with youth, you can’t get to the root causes and provide the necessary support.

The Navigator position, funded by Children’s Health Foundation, connects youth to individualized supports and focuses on prevention and early intervention to the signs of mental health distress. Can you tell me about the impact of the Navigator on the youth you serve?

The real strength of the Navigator position is she tailors to the individual, rather than offering a cookie cutter solution. At the core of the position is determining what that young person needs at any given point and doing everything we can to support them.

The impact varies from connecting youth to mental health services, to look for housing for those who have left or been tossed out of home, to helping youth living on their own to enter a long-term treatment program. It runs the whole spectrum of supports, depending on the need of the individual.

When it comes to mental health care for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis youth, what are some of the most important things you’d like service providers to consider in their work?

All the research in the world demonstrates the importance of culture to indigenous people in general, and that’s especially true for youth. Often including a cultural component will be the link that engages that young person in the support, whether it’s having an Elder on staff, considering the medicine wheel, or supporting smudging.

We will soon be creating a position for an Indigenous Cultural Support Worker. The intention is not to have them take on a new caseload, but rather to work with existing youth service providers to make sure that there’s a cultural component to the support that’s offered to an indigenous young person.

Culture is critical to the support provided by service providers to indigenous youth. It’s an essential ingredient, and without it, you’re missing a huge piece of how indigenous youth want to be supported.

What unique challenges are Indigenous communities, specifically youth, in your region facing right now during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Isolation has been a significant challenge. For indigenous communities, culture is community. It’s gathering together, having a meal together, and drumming together. It’s not meant to be done on your own; it’s meant to be shared in community. That piece has been missing.

And for our young people who are living in tenuous situations, domestic violence has been increasing. Many youth are walking away from their homes and are ending up on the streets. In Nanaimo, there aren’t many youth-specific homeless supports, and so youth are having to gravitate to shelters designed for adults. This increases many risk factors.

How has the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre adapted its programs and services in light of the pandemic?

We have transitioned some of our services online, and the Navigator is doing her best to continue connecting with youth in-person while maintaining social distancing.

Before the pandemic, we did very little food security work, with the exception of referring youth to existing food programs. Over the last ten weeks, we’ve been partnering with Telus to deliver over 300 food boxes every week, 35 of which go directly to youth living in youth housing or on their own in the city.

We’ve also partnered with Literacy Central Vancouver Island to deliver harm reduction kits, water, and overnight gear to street-entrenched youth. We always ask them what they need and do our best to get those items to them the following week, whether it’s a tent, a rain jacket, a sleeping bag, or shoes.

Has the organization learned anything during this challenging time that you will carry forward into your work after the pandemic ends?

We’ve learned that we are highly adaptable; it didn’t take us nearly as long as public schools and districts to make the switch to online. Our secondary school has just shy of 100 learners, and we have been able to transition to online learning seamlessly.

We plan to continue our newly developed food security program. I don’t see the need going away anytime soon.

What inspires you most about your work at the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre?

I am inspired by the resilience of the youth we serve. When you hear their life stories and the challenges they’ve faced, I don’t know how they have the strength to come to our programs, to engage in cultural opportunities, and to learn their languages. Their resiliency is just incredible and inspires me more than anything in this work.

Can you share a story of a young person served by the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre that inspires you?

We had a sixteen-year-old come to us who was living in care. When we requested to have his transcripts transferred from his former school district, they told us, “don’t take him. He’s not worth your effort. He does nothing.”

He came with us to Tribal Journeys the following summer and when I asked him if he wanted to join a drum circle, put on a vest, and wear a cedar headband, he immediately answered yes to each question. He had never drummed or donned regalia in his life. He even had the courage to share his own song with a group of strangers in a drum circle.

At last year’s Gathering Our Voices conference in Port Alberni, he was the recipient of a provincial cultural award, where he got up on stage and spoke to over 1,000 indigenous youth about the importance of culture.

It gets even better. He has been coming with us every Wednesday to participate in our downtown outreach. He’s still only 18 years old and is building relationships with street-entrenched youth every week. He’s not being paid to do that; he simply wants to give back and is finding true value in it.

The ills that are a part of our community are being addressed by role models like this young man. It’s that person who does something for the first time in our community – everybody looks at them and thinks, “if they can do it, I can do it.” That’s our greatest asset.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We are very grateful to Children’s Health Foundation for the support. Having multi-year funding is very much appreciated at the community level. Your recent information sessions are a great way to reach out to community and see how everyone is responding. It’s very positive and uplifting.