‘Igniting their spirit:’ Lise Haddock fights for Indigenous youth in Cowichan Valley

·4 min read

Lise Haddock was driving in downtown Duncan this summer when a group of Indigenous youth prompted her to change direction.

She says she knew the youth from her work in the child welfare space, and she pulled over to chat with them.

“I recognized them as youth that had been in care of either a Delegated Aboriginal Agency or the [Ministry of Children and Family Development],” Haddock says.

“As I listened to their stories, I heard that they had basically graduated from the foster care system into the homeless system… that sense of identity and belongingness they were now finding on the street, instead of with their family and community.”

It was this encounter that inspired Haddock to accept a position with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Cowichan Valley Branch — as its first Indigenous executive director.

Founded in 1918, the CMHA has a mandate to support folks with all aspects of mental health and illness. The Cowichan Valley Branch was incorporated in 1992 and offers programs and services for those experiencing homelessness, including transitional housing.

“We need to recognize that there is such a high representation of Indigenous people in the mental health sector, the justice sector, and in the foster system,” says Haddock. “And we need to look at working together to develop programs that are culturally appropriate, culturally safe.”

Youth who have been in the child welfare system are disproportionately at risk of homelessness. According to the 2018 Report on Homeless Counts in B.C., 29 per cent of folks surveyed during one of two dozen homeless counts conducted around B.C. said they had experience in foster care, a youth group home, or had been on a youth agreement. Of the same group of respondents, 38 per cent identified as Indigenous.

Originally from Manitoba, Haddock identifies as Métis. She says she is honoured to have been a guest on the unceded territory of the Cowichan people for the last 30 years.

While she has worked as a child and youth care worker, a social worker, a social worker instructor, and a consultant, she says she felt that there were greater opportunities to create systemic change at a managerial level.

Between 1993 and 2013, she served as the executive director of Lalum’utul’ Smun’eem Child and Family Services, a Delegated Aboriginal Agency with a mandate to serve the Cowichan Tribes.

Haddock says she has “a ton of respect for front line workers and the love and compassion and kindness and wisdom that they bring into their practice,”.

“That work is so relational — it’s very difficult for the social worker to be holding families up and advocating for systemic change at the same time,” she says. “Even the delegated agencies that work with the nations, they’re basically based on a provincial model, not an Indigenous model.”

Haddock is hopeful that will change with Bill C-92, a federal bill that was “co-developed with Indigenous, provincial, and territorial partners with the goal of keeping Indigenous children and youth connected to their families, communities, and culture”.

After working at Lalum’utul’ Smuneem Child and Family Services, Haddock worked with the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth (RCY) as the director of aboriginal initiatives. The RCY is an advocacy organization that supports children and families involved in the child welfare system in B.C.

Under the leadership of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who was the RCY at the time, Haddock says she recognized the importance of using her voice to impact change through a more relational and grassroots approach, rather than through bureaucratic processes.

“Our role [at the RCY] was to hold young people up, to empower people, and to support them in igniting their spirit,” says Haddock. “We really need to keep our eyes on the ground and to be connected to people who have the lived experience of dealing with intergenerational trauma.”

Now, as the first Indigenous executive director of the CMHA Cowichan Valley Branch, she aims to serve people in a good way.

“My journey has taken me to positions and tables where I have been given the space to have a voice, and hopefully I have used that voice to support our people, to be an advocate for change, but also to engage in difficult discussions.”

In May 2020, the Cowichan Valley branch was put under probation for one year after an external investigation report found that there were problems with the branch’s housing practices and policies, including the discriminatory treatment of a tenant.

The report recommended a number of steps, including “organization-wide training focused on a meaningful commitment to Indigenous reconciliation, including training on cultural safety, humility and trauma-informed care.”

“We need to look at the [anti-Indigenous] racism in this organization and how that has been transferred to practice,” says Haddock, who began working at the branch just over a month ago, in September. “Perpetrators of racism will not be welcome in this organization.”

According to Haddock the branch is in the process of implementing strategic change, and is working to strengthen partnerships with the Cowichan Tribes, the Malahat Nation, and the Ts’uubaa-asatx Nation (formerly the Lake Cowichan First Nation).

“Government does not need to lead,” she says. “Indigenous governance and organizations need to lead the way.”

Anna McKenzie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse