It was a stiflingly hot Friday in Surrey, B.C. The smell of barbecued bison burgers wafted from a parking lot on Whalley Ring Road, where kids fished icy sodas out of buckets, elders sought seats in the shade, and a small army of social workers tested microphones and scooped potato salad.
They’d all come together for Métis Family Services’ 17th annual honouring ceremony, which recognizes youth who are turning 19 and “aging out” of government care. But it’s not only about tipping hats to these 18-year-olds. “We honour families that have done really well,” MFS director Judy Smith told me. “They’ve gotten their kids back and they’re on a really good road.”
Young mothers were recognized for being patient and loving with their children. Others were honoured for their volunteer service and good grades. There was cheering and crying, fiddling and jigging. Unlike most media stories about the child welfare system, this one seemed devoid of tragedy.
Judy later qualified my rosy interpretation, though. “Probably three-quarters of the people that were sitting in that audience today are people that — we have removed their children,” she said. “Yet they come, they sit, they talk, they eat, they dance because we treat them like people.”
Five youth were at the the centre of the ceremony. Social worker Chad Dumaine said their extraordinary accomplishments are too easily mistaken as ordinary by those less familiar with the complex challenges these youth are navigating. “She’s been able to hold down a home, keep it clean and safe . . . hold down a job . . . finish school and register for post-secondary education,” Chad said about one of the young women.
“She takes care of her kittens,” he said of another.
After social workers and loved ones recognized each honouree, Bruce Robinson, an elder who runs programs for Indigenous youth throughout Greater Vancouver, led a blanketing ceremony. He brushed the youth with cedar boughs “to cleanse all the things that they’ve gone through in life already” so they can have a fresh, positive start from now on.
Bruce told me why this day matters: “When we come together like this, we’re teaching all our younger ones what it means to be who they are and where they come from, and to always be proud of that.”
Devin-Rae, one of the 18-year-olds being honoured, called this event “probably one of the biggest days of my life.”
“I’ve been in a couple foster homes, a couple group homes,” he told me. “I’ve always gone to all of these ceremonies and seen what it’s like for people to move on to adulthood, do the balloon thing, get their ribbon-belt, get their blanket and everything. Being able to experience that [myself] was just so amazing.”
Being a witness to this was likewise amazing. I couldn’t wait to write about it, partly because I’m told by youth, social workers and advocates that they’d like to see more hopeful stories in the media—rather they need more hopeful stories. They say youth project themselves onto the cycle of negative, tragedy-focused stories: they start to see themselves as another statistic, bound for menial work, homelessness or suicide. They say this unbalanced story landscape discourages would-be foster parents and social workers. They say we’re simply not telling the full story.
After months of listening, I’m starting to get a sense for the bigger picture, starting to understand B.C.’s complex child welfare system.
By making space for people to share stories at listening events in Vancouver last fall, we initiated a chain reaction of relationships. Now I’m getting invited to these intimate celebrations and receiving off-the-record phone calls from frustrated social workers. Intensely media-wary Delegated Aboriginal Agency directors are starting to call me back. Advocates are encouraging youth in/from care to come work with us as media fellows.
At the risk of sounding altogether too west-coast, there’s an energy building. And I’m feeling cautiously (read: wildly) optimistic.