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Award-winning framework gives a voice to Indigenous youth transitioning out of care

Kirsty Choquette has received an award for developing a framework that gives Indigenous children in care in Alberta a voice in the mentoring they receive before they transition out of government care.

The University of Alberta Ph.D. student in the School and Clinical Child Psychology program is “honoured” to have received the Mitacs Award for Inclusive Innovation. But she’s a little saddened too, if not surprised, to have learned that the voices of Indigenous youth have not been heard despite accounting for 74 per cent of youth in care in the province.

“It’s a really unfortunate reality,” said Choquette (Mi’kmaq). “I think that's the way that our system and, frankly, society has worked for a long time…. They don't ask us about what we think about that (mentoring) work.”

She said Indigenous youth in our society have needs, “just like any other youth, and so raising their voices is important because their voices, our voices, have been underrepresented in…the research that we base these programs off of. Historically (it) has not been based on Indigenous peoples and their voices.”

Choquette found a willing partner with the Alberta Mentoring Partnership (AMP).

“Our minds were at the same place at the same time. It's not like I had to drag them into this idea of…doing this in an Indigenous way, which was really exciting. I think that's a promising shift and I hope that, moving forward, it is a more common practice,” she said.

Choquette has developed an inclusive evaluation framework that is now being used by AMP and its partner organizations to build a culturally safe environment from the ground up, ensuring that Indigenous youth transferring out of child welfare services feel represented and able to share their stories about their mentoring experiences. Choquette said the opportunity arose to develop the framework during her two years of working with AMP. The organization wanted to repurpose one of its programs to create Mentoring for Youth and Young Adults.

Undertaking her dissertation on raising children in a First Nation community in Alberta and being on her own journey of understanding and reconnecting with her Indigenous identity, it was a priority for Choquette that the voices of Indigenous youth be heard.

“It's been forefront of my mind for a long time. So when they brought this up, it was one of the first thoughts I had was making sure we do this in an Indigenized and decolonized way as much as possible and, really, ensuring that we highlight those Indigenous voices and hear from the youth,” she said.

To make the framework happen, Choquette had an opportunity to work with and talk to AMP and the funders.

“A lot of funders, they’ll put certain stipulations about evaluation in funding agreements that are pretty black and white. They're numbers based and they don't always capture the full story,” she said.

Funding 60 matches and getting those 60 matches filled doesn’t reveal whether those matches “helped more youth connect to their culture or if you've helped youth reach their goals,” she points out.

Choquette’s framework changes the way programs are evaluated from numbers-based to collecting data on how impactful the experience has been. And the data is collected in a culturally safe and meaningful way, she says.

“So the goal is that we'll be able to tell if the Indigenous youths’ needs are being met through mentoring,” she explained.

Among the questions the youth are being asked include if the mentorship program is helping them to reconnect to their cultures and communities and, more importantly, “if they’re in the space that they're ready and willing to do so.”

But the evaluation goes beyond a survey. There are also focus groups, some of which use art-based methods, knowledge keepers, Elders, activities such as drumming and creating ribbon skirts.

“We provide those teachings and then let the youth tell us about their experiences and the mentoring program and connections to culture and things like that through that artistic expression and through that cultural expression,” said Choquette.

The framework is slowly being put in place with the new programs and Choquette expects the data will start to be gathered in the new year.

“I'm hopeful that this data is going to provide the mentoring organizations with the information they need to continually improve their programs,” she said.

The data will also be valuable in securing funding as it will demonstrate the impact of the programs. That could also attract more volunteer mentors.

“What's amazing is there's a lot of mentoring programs in Alberta that are recognizing this shift as needed and are trying to make gains towards that. I think there's also some Indigenous-led mentoring programs that are really amazing,” said Choquette.

“I think that there is a lot of room for growth and a lot of programs who want to make those shifts. And I'm hopeful that the more conversations we have and the more programs that start to make this shift, other programs will see the benefit,” she added.

Choquette was never in the foster care system but she has experienced the loss of connection. The nature of colonization, forced assimilation and intergenerational trauma, she says, were all part of her childhood and she wasn’t “super connected” to her father’s Mi’kmaq family.

“What's been kind of cool is being able to talk to my dad about my journey and him express his experiences with his own journey with his identity as an Indigenous man,” she said. “So this has been a lovely journey to be able to do this with my work and then also be able to infuse my personal journey into that has been incredible.”

Choquette is grateful to have received the funding support through Mitacs, which covered her internship with AMP. Mitacs has also provided further funding to support the mentoring program and implement the framework.

The project has also been supported through funding from the AMP and Big Brothers Big Sisters Edmonton.

Choquette is one of nine Mitacs award winners nationally, chosen from thousands of researchers who take part in Mitacs programs each year. The Mitacs Award for Inclusive Innovation is presented to a Mitacs intern who has made a significant achievement in research and development innovation during their Mitacs-funded research.

Mitacs programs are funded by the Government of Canada and provincial and territorial governments across the country. Mitacs is a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.

Choquette hopes to graduate with her PhD within the year. However, because she is doing community-based study at the university’s School of Public Health, her graduation date is flexible as it is dependent on “meeting the needs of the community that I'm working with.”

Windspeaker.com

By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com