A passion for culture
June 2015 will mark the eighth annual Roots Celebration within Okanagan First Nation Territory, the land of the Syilx people. The event serves Indigenous children and youth in care by helping to instill in them a sense of pride, honour and respect for their identity and heritage. Organizers and participants represent many Nations and bring together the best of what they have to share over a weekend rich in Indigenous cultural experiences focused on children and youth.
Gladys Stepaniuk is a founding committee member of the Roots Celebration whose connection to her own roots has been essential to her healing. Her experience as a child in foster care and an adoptee in a non-Indigenous home fuels her passion for children and youth. “I love my job because it is my life. These children, it’s not their choice to come into care. It’s not their fault. They come into care with trauma and loss, that extra layer that other children growing up with their own parents really don’t have. I just want to give back to these kids.” Gladys’s words reveal the heart of this beautiful, resilient, and dedicated woman.
I first heard Gladys speak at a workshop I attended last winter. I respected her transparency as she shared her experiences as a child in foster care and as an adoptee, her education, and her work with the Gathering Place in Vernon, B.C. Gladys generously shared a cultural resource binder she created, so that I and others could better serve the Indigenous children and youth with whom we work. This collection of culturally diverse information provides a valuable resource to share with children and youth in care and their and families, and will help us in the crucial work of nurturing their Indigenous identity. Listening to Gladys speak about the Roots Celebration has me dreaming of opportunities for all of our families.
Celebrate Aboriginal Day!
On June 21st each year, Canadians from all walks of life are invited to participate in the many National Aboriginal Day events that will be taking place from coast to coast to coast. This is a special day to celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding achievements of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada. Visit www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca for more.
Gladys worked as a Roots Worker at the Kelowna Friendship Centre for three years and then at the Gathering Place in Vernon for almost five years. She recently began working with the Kelowna Métis Society in their Roots program. Gladys created the Cultural Package presentation, which is a ceremony and resource binder for each of the children and youth leaving foster care to permanent homes or aging out of the system. “We put a binder together because, when I first came back to my culture, I was overwhelmed with questions…so I thought, let’s put together this binder. That way the child can learn at their own pace. They can sit down [with their foster or adoptive parent] and go through this binder together and work at that barrier of ignorance. That’s what a lot of the problem is, that layer of ignorance.”
Gladys invites families to work through the binder together and to come and talk to her if they have questions or need help connecting. The staff connects individuals with Elders to ask questions and learn in a safe environment at their own pace. Gladys knows that many kids may not be that interested at first, but believes there will come a day when they will be interested. She especially likes doing genograms and stresses the importance of children knowing their bloodline. Gladys has seen children come into care from large sibling groups that cannot be kept together, so the siblings get split into separate foster homes. She says that “every child needs a genogram. They need to know who their bloodline is and where their bloodline is so that when they do age out of care and meet that special somebody, they know that person is not a brother or a sister.”
The Roots Celebration
The Roots Celebration’s purpose is providing for children and youth in care, celebrating culture, and working together to eliminate the barrier of ignorance. This year the celebration has moved away from a more commercial fairgrounds setting to a real grassroots, hands-on event out at Pillar Lake, north of Vernon. The children and their families camp at the lake and enjoy fishing, tomahawk throwing, bannock on a stick, sharing stories around the campfire, singing, dancing, and many other activities. The focus is on connecting, relationships, and experiencing culture. Participants include many diverse Nations, Métis, Inuit, Elders, MCFD staff, and community partners.
“Everyone participates and comes together as a community to give the children as much as they can give,” said Gladys. “We want the children to grow up and be proud of who and what they are and to experience different aspects of culture. Often, when living in a mainstream society home, there can be a void. I’m Cree and I don’t know my language. It’s never too late, though. I know a few Cree words, and I’m learning about the Sun Dance, the Pow Wow and traditional dances, what each dance means, and the protocol with Elders.”
When I asked about the core values that resonate throughout the event, Gladys is quick to mention the four quadrants of the Medicine Wheel–-the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of a person, the four seasons, and the life stages of child, youth, adult and Elder. As we move through the stages of the medicine wheel, we come to generosity and giving back, and the circle continues.
Gladys also speaks of Dr. Martin Brokenleg’s Circle of Courage and how a sense of belonging must come before anything else. The Roots Celebration aims to create that sense of belonging and awareness of each child’s valued place.
Nurturing dignity and pride
“Families register and come back year after year,” Gladys said when asked how families carry these teachings forward into their lives. “We encourage families to take part in National Aboriginal Day events, and we have an open door policy: phone me, or just stop in and we can go for coffee. We have Elders in the office, and we can connect you to an Elder who’ll do visits in the home to eliminate that barrier of ignorance one-on-one. Ask questions, clarify assumptions and stereotypes. These children need to embrace all that they are. It’s an ugly world out there,
and they need to be equipped with all the tools they’ll need to be successful adults. They need to be able to walk comfortably in both worlds.”
Today Gladys has two beautiful children and two wonderful grandchildren whom she loves and celebrates. Her personal story of life in care and as an adoptee will be shared in time, but suffice it to say it’s a testament to her resilience and a powerful message about the necessity of one’s connection to culture, to family, and to caregivers who will uphold a child’s dignity and nurture pride in their identity.
I raise my hands up in thanks to Gladys for her generosity in sharing her story and for the terrific work she does through the Roots program. “I love the work I do because of the life I’ve lived. I grew up in care: I know we must give these children pride in who and what they are.”
The Roots Celebration is funded by the Ministry of Children and Family Development and takes place in May or June of each year.
Dorothy “Kelly” Davie lives with her husband and two sons on Coast Salish Territory along the east coast of Vancouver Island. Like strips of cedar woven together to create something strong, beautiful, and lasting, so too are the individuals within her family woven together through birth and adoption. She is honoured to work as a Child Specific Family Recruiter (CSR) with AFABC.