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Emergency foster home with focus on Innu culture to open in Sheshatshiu

An emergency foster home to house children in care for short-term stays will soon open its doors in Sheshatshiu, Labrador.

Janet Bellefleur, executive director of Shushepeshipan Ishpitentamun Mitshuap, says the foster home is another step toward keeping Innu children in their home communities. (Tyler Mugford/CBC)

An emergency foster home to house children in care for short-term stays will soon open its doors in Sheshatshiu, Labrador.

It’s another step toward keeping Innu children in their home communities.

“We don’t want it to feel like an institution,” says Janet Bellefleur, executive director of Shushepeshipan Ishpitentamun Mitshuap, the committee behind the home.

The home is one of two emergency shelters announced by the Innu Nation for children in the protection system.

It will offer a 90-day stay to children in care, with the hope of keeping Innu children in Labrador, and as close to their homes and culture as possible. A group home also announced opened late last year.

“For so many years, there was crisis in our community where children were being placed out of province or even in province, but in Newfoundland, and there weren’t enough foster parents in the community,” Bellefleur said.

Bellefleur got the keys to the building in November, and staff training is getting underway this month.

The group home that opened last year has cultural programming, including taking kids ice fishing, and cultural arts and crafts programs, Bellefleur said.

“That’s what we want to do here, but it’s gonna be a little bit different,” she told CBC’s Labrador Morning.

This is the shared living space at the emergency foster home in Sheshatshiu. (Tyler Mugford/CBC)

“We want to have the Innu alphabet all over, we want to have a lot of artwork, we want to have elders come in and do storytelling and just make it very, very Innu cultural.”

More than half of the children in protective care in Canada are First Nations, Inuit or Métis. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 34 per cent of the children in protective care are Indigenous, and half of those children are Inuit.

In 2017, 90 Innu children from Sheshatshiu were in the province’s care, and there were 60 Innu children from Natuashish in care.

That same year, the Newfoundland and Labrador government announced an inquiry into the treatment of Innu children in the child protection system, where they are overrepresented.

A group of children from the region did a traditional dance in traditional dress at the opening announcement for the group home in Sheshatshiu in August 2018. (CBC)

There has yet to be any official movement on that inquiry.

Meanwhile, provincial Child and Youth Advocate Jackie Lake Kavanagh is releasing her independent review of the child protection system’s response to Inuit children in care on Sept. 4 in Nain.

‘As extra feeling of safety’

Bellefleur said the emergency shelter will be a way for children to stay in their communities longer, rather than being shipped off to a foreign environment while other solutions are arranged.

“If I were a little girl and I had been taken from my home, I would want to be in my community. We’re a community of less than 2,000 people, everybody knows everybody,” she said.

“If you’re a little child, wouldn’t you want to be in your community still able to go to school, still be a part of your community, able to have visits with your family? And here the language that you hear all the time from workers, I think that’s really important.”

That’s what my biggest hope is, to have a lot — I know it’s not gonna be all Innu workers, but to have a lot of Innu workers here.– Janet Bellefleur

Bellefleur said the value of feeling at home is immeasurable.

“That’s, to me, an extra feeling of safety and knowing you’re going to be OK, when you have people speaking to you in your language or people speaking the language to each other,” she said.

The hope, Bellefleur said, is that it can serve as a transition home, too, for children who were placed in care elsewhere, but who want to come home.

“An example I could give is a child that’s been in Ontario for a while and that child wants to come back into the community to reconnect with their family, and their family wants them to come back, and there isn’t really a place for them to stay within the community,” she said.

“We would have space so they could come and stay here to reconnect with their family. Kind of like a transition for them to be able to come home, reconnect with family, have visits, and do that periodically.”

The emergency foster home is a newly constructed building. An open house happened Aug. 28. (Tyler Mugford/CBC)

Bellefleur said the emergency foster home does not yet have its operations budget, but she hopes to hire 32 child youth care workers at the home; four managers are already being trained.

There will be a mix of permanent and casual staff, she said, as well as a kaumaut — a mother figure — and an utaumaut — a father figure.

“Some people call it the den mother, the den father,” Bellefleur said.

“It’s a little bit different than a [child youth care worker], but they’re still all the same training that’s required to be a CYCW, but the role is different and the hours are a little bit different.”

‘The concept is so new’

The foster home hosted an open house on Aug. 28, so people in the community could drop by and ask questions, and also so the group could potentially recruit staff.

“People are still kind of not really sure, they don’t quite understand, because it’s so new — the concept is so new,” Bellefleur said.

“Right now I think people have a lot of questions and that’s why we wanted to do this open house, we wanted to give people an opportunity to ask us questions and we could answer them and be able to share what this is.”

The official opening date for the home isn’t yet set in stone, since the priority will first be finding and training staff.

“That’s what my biggest hope is, to have a lot — I know it’s not gonna be all Innu workers, but to have a lot of Innu workers here,” Bellefleur said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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