Wicihitowin: Aboriginal Social Work in Canada
November 4, 2013
Review By Shelly Johnson
“Wicihitowin” is a Cree word that describes the collective processes involved in helping/sharing with one another, and that is what the eleven First Nations, Métis, and Inuit social work educators across Canada have done with this groundbreaking Aboriginal social work offering. The Aboriginal authors contend that this book is an anti-colonial project, a critical step in the long-term decolonization process for Aboriginal peoples living on the northern territories of Turtle Island (North America) and the “first of its kind focusing our present understandings of social work in an Indigenist and/or Indigenous-centred way” (236). Written from the authors’ unique Aboriginal worldviews, Wicihitowin begins with a thought-provoking foreword by distinguished Secwepemc social work academic Richard Vedan, who cautions that “their teachings are recommended not as ‘recipes or formulae’ for work with Indigenous individuals, families and communities but as a reference upon which each individual can develop an understanding and appreciation of what their role can and should be” (16). This position is reinforced by Gord Bruyere, who states: “to consider the chapters as all-encompassing, definitive or authoritative is to make the modernist mistake of assuming there is only one answer, that there is only one way to look and to walk” (17).
Twelve chapters are divided into three sections (historical and theoretical aspects, practice, and traditional knowledge) that reveal sometimes very personal stories about how the contributors, their families, communities, and diverse nations were/are involuntarily forced by the Canadian colonial state to receive cross-cultural services (adoption, foster care, counselling) from the primarily Eurocentric social work profession. As Indigenous academics, the contributors are critical and assertive in the legitimate need for the social work profession to acknowledge, recognize, and reconcile Indigenous-centred social work processes at all research, practice, policy, and theoretical levels – and in both communities and the academy.
The three sections are introduced by Bruyere as “thoughts make dreaming, dreaming makes action and the spirit of dreaming,” which reflects the holistic Indigenous spiritual worldview infusing all aspects of Indigenous life and differentiating it from the Eurocentric worldview, which encompasses distinct concepts of theory, action, and knowledge. The first section introduces, reviews, and defines the historical and theoretical aspects of Aboriginal social work from the perspectives of Cree/Assiniboine/Saulteaux academic Raven Sinclair, Cree academic Michael Hart and Labrador Inuit academic Gail Baikie. Care is taken by the contributors to clearly define such terms as “Aboriginal social work,” “colonialism,” “colonization,” “anti-colonialism,” “Indigenism,” and “Aboriginal approach to helping.” Baikie asserts that the theoretical framework for Aboriginal-centred social work is “enabled by an anti-colonial stance” (47) and offers responses to the question “what is Indigenous or Indigenous-centred social work?”
The next five chapters describe Aboriginal social work practices through experiential examples. This section includes chapters by Nlha’kapmx Nation member Rona Sterling-Collins, who advocates for holistic approaches to support children with special needs and, specifically, living with autism; by Raven Sinclair, who discusses critical racial issues in Aboriginal transracial adoption; Métis educators Cathy Richardson and Dana Lynn Seaborn who discuss unique Métis historical and contemporary needs as well as future Métis service provision for children and families; by Mi’kmaw/Irish academic Cyndy Baskin who discusses holistic Aboriginal healing approaches with Aboriginal adults; and by Michael Hart who discusses the movement towards an Aboriginal research paradigm.
The final section contains three chapters that deal with unique traditional knowledge that is relevant to Aboriginal-centred social work. Kathy Absolon’s Anishinaabe stories about her healing and self-care practices, connections, and relationships with elders, land, and community enable readers to gain an understanding of what is meant by traditional knowledge, as do Michelle Reid’s reflections on her child welfare practice in the community and the leadership lessons learned from her Heiltsuk father and her Swedish mother’s belief in, and valuing of, traditional Heiltsuk laws. Jacquie Green’s Haisla identity-strengthening and best-practices awareness, gathered from traditional Haisla oolichan-fishing processes, informs readers how Aboriginal-centred social work needs to be an extension of central tenets of everyday Aboriginal life. It also helps the reader begin to contemplate the significant ramifications for Aboriginal identity development, health, and well-being when the oolichan are absent from seasonal fishing.
Hart and Sinclair conclude with the story of a river journey taken by four friends in two canoes, which at times are voluntarily joined by two paddles and at times are not. “I … realize that as a paddle I am initially based in one canoe or the other. I know where I am based and what role I am to play for Indigenous peoples. In reality, I would have minimal difficulties being dropped by academia or the mainstream social work profession, but if I am dropped by my nation for not fulfilling my commitment to our people, I am truly without a base. After all, the social work profession does not significantly influence all aspects of who I have been, who I am and who I will be, but my Creeness certainly does” (238). This statement reveals the crux of the issue of indigeneity in continuing to shape the Canadian social work profession and lays bare the Aboriginal struggle to reclaim our ways of helping, our pedagogy, and our practice of social work in our Aboriginal communities and in the academy.
Wicihitowin is a momentous social work achievement for Aboriginal peoples in Canada as well as for our allies and collaborators. There is no other book with which to compare it. In order to build the understanding and change needed in Eurocentric professions, every one of them in which Aboriginal peoples receive, develop, gain access to, or deliver services or policy requires such a book. For the first time, the collective voices of Aboriginal social work educators have come together to redefine, re-story, and reclaim their places at the forefront of healing, practice, theory, and research. This book must be included in every social work program in Canada and acknowledged for what it represents – a seismic transformation, new life, hope, and understanding for the social work profession.