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For Tzeachten Chief Derek Epp success in prevention programs is tempered by those left behind

When a Stó:lō mother of three passed away from cancer in 2021, the collaboration between family, Nation, and agency wrapped the kids in love and supported them to stay in community.

Tzeachten First Nation Chief Weli’leq Derek Epp

Prevention can be described as intervening early before there is a problem, and before child protection becomes involved. However, the interventions themselves can be incredibly varied. Prevention is not just “funding programs” as interventions must be rooted in culture and reflect the specific needs of the family and their community. Interventions are also connected to larger determinants of wellness.

The Tzeachten Nation is located east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley Region, near Chilliwack. The Nation is politically affiliated with the Stó:lō Nation and is one of 17 Nations supported by Xyólheméylh , the largest fully delegated Indigenous Child and Family Service Agency in BC. Through collaboration, they have experienced inspiring successes in prevention work.

In the fall of 2021, a young Tzeachten woman, mother of three, faced a short battle with cancer. Tzeachten First Nation Chief Weli’leq Derek Epp speaks of this emotional time of letting go and grieving and the Nation’s desire to give the family the time and space to do this important work.

“Following the loss, we gave the family the space they needed to adjust to their new living situation while ensuring the necessary supports were in place for the children, grandparents and great-grandmother.”

Through collaboration between family, Nation, and agency and access to needs-based prevention funding, a plan was created for the children to remain with their grandparents and great-grandmother and to see their mother as much as possible before her passing. Distance was a barrier, so the Community Health Worker provided rides to the Cancer Clinic which was a 40-minute drive away. The family was provided meals when away from home on visits and further supported in the home through the provision of food hampers, basic necessities, and respite when needed.

Understanding just how hard the holidays can be, great efforts were made to ensure that the children’s first Christmas without their mother was special. As the months wore on, it became clear that the family needed a larger living space. The family was invited to tour one of Tzeachten’s new townhouse developments, and they decided it was right for them. Prevention funding enabled them to move into a furnished home, close to necessary support services and family connections.

Chief Epp said that “Up until recent years, we unfortunately have not had the luxury to meet our families needs with regards to on-reserve prevention services,” he continues “Through the prevention funding we received, we were able to empower the family to develop a plan to meet their new needs.” One of the hallmarks of the collaboration was how the Nation and agency followed the family’s interest, readiness, and need.

In this case, prevention took a number of forms. It was a home that met the family’s needs. It was a time and space to grieve. It was recognized that grandparents may need different resources and supports than other caregivers. Chief Derek Epp states that “The collaboration that went into this process was truly the definition of prevention…it’s situations like this that keep us all going and watching the family thrive makes it all worth it.”

Penny Trites is the Executive Director of Staff and Community Relations at Xyólheméylh

Penny Trites, Executive Director of Staff and Community Relations at Xyólheméylh, explained how new prevention funding the Federal Government (ISC) provides has made a marked difference in the work they do and in the lives of the families and communities they serve. The agency has been able to build trust with communities and create culturally safe spaces. They now lease space in 6 of the 17 Nations they serve, enabling them to provide in-community workers, with plans to expand to more communities. Approaches to culture are nuanced and locally-based as there is a shift toward “Doing true Indigenous social work, not Indigenizing social work” says Trites.

This shift has been marked by needs-based supports; planning with, and not for, families and communities; and the firm guidance of an Elders’ Advisory table. According to Trites, the agency is able to see the bigger picture as knowledge of a family may go back generations. All of this means that the number of kids living out-of-care (in family placements) has risen dramatically, and ‘stranger placements’ are becoming rare.

However, both Chief Epp and Trites share their concern for Nation members living out of community, often due to factors such as lack of housing or employment.

If the family in the story shared by Chief Epp had been living in an urban centre, instead of in community, the outcome would have been very different.

“Unfortunately, our members who reside off-reserve and urban Indigenous brothers, sisters, and families have not shared this recent success,” said Chief Epp, “It is sad to see so many families left behind due to systemic inadequacies.”

Trites is clear on this point “If we are actually following federal legislation – it needs to be equality of services for all, regardless of where someone resides. Otherwise, it is just another form of discrimination and an ongoing human rights violation.” She continues that “These children and youth have an inherent right to identity” and community and cultural connections.

Trites continues, “Historically, in community – everyone knew what everyone’s roles were, hunter, speaker, healer, and that is why the prevention funding works in community, because people know who does what and who to go to. But for those living away from home, they don’t often know where to go for support.” She further explains that the services available to families living out of community are often not culturally safe, meaning families are less likely to seek help.

Having worked for many years at MCFD in the past, Trites explains that the funding gaps for Indigenous families were not clear to her until she began working in an Indigenous Child and Family Service Agency, stating “You can’t know until you’re actually here.” Until recently, families living in community received little to no prevention funding. However, now that prevention funding is available for those in community, it has widened the gap for those relatives living away from their home who are not eligible for these supports.

Chief Epp is confident that this will be corrected.

“I am optimistic Xyólheméylh will soon access the same level of prevention funding from the Provincial Government to align with the funding offered from ISC to support children, youth and families they serve regardless of where they live. We have a saying in Halq’eméylem. Syós:ys lets’e th’ále, lets’emó:t, which means one heart, one mind, working together for a common purpose. This speaks to the traditional teachings of the Stó:lō people to take care of all our Indigenous relatives who live in our territory.”