Honouring the heart of community care

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A photo of the First Nations University campus in Regina.
Indigenous voices must be prioritized in the social service sector. Indigenous voices must be prioritized in the social service sector.

A SW degree is good, but an ISW degree may be even more beneficial

It is not a regular week in March without recognizing Saskatchewan’s Social Work Week. Involving a time of reflection and celebration within the Indigenous community, the Indigenous Social Work (ISW) program at First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) in Regina, Prince Albert, and Saskatoon is taking center stage, hosting a week of events to honour the cultural contributions of Indigenous social workers.

Last year, the Government of Saskatchewan declared March 20-25 as Social Work Week in Saskatchewan. Their theme was Social Work is Essential. This year, March 18-23 was Social Work Week, with the theme Seven Points of Unity; Many Possibilities. To better understand the program and the significance of an Indigenized social work program, it’s essential to delve into the history of social work itself.

In a March 18, 2024, news release, the Saskatchewan government wrote, “Social workers assist individuals and families in need to navigate through difficulties in their lives. They provide supports and services to help overcome significant challenges, including substance use, intimate partner violence, mental health crises and intergenerational trauma. Across the province, social workers can be found working in public or private practice, in community-based organizations, and across the health and mental health, education, justice, disability, and child and family sectors. They may also be engaged in research, policy, planning or administration.”

The FNUniv campus in Regina currently has 3 programs for ISW: Certificate of Indigenous Social Work, Bachelor of Indigenous Social Work, and Master of Indigenous Social Work. These programs are intended to enhance the cultural competency of social workers of Indigenous communities and groups.

The idea of this program is to provide students with the perspective to deliver work from an Indigenist, anti-oppressive perspective, consistently self-reflecting and developing as social work practitioners. 

According to Volume 3, Issue 2 of the Journal of Indigenous Social Development Program in Manitoba, “to practice from an Indigenist perspective requires an understanding of Indigenism. An Indigenist practitioner incorporates traditional Indigenous values, beliefs, ethics, practices, ceremonies, and social structures.” The program gave students a lot of flexibility and provided instructors the accessibility to increase the reach of their program.

Even newcomers are surprised to learn that Canada offers Indigenous studies in their social work courses. In an interview with CBC, Fiyan Lam said, “In Canada their social work studies always includes the topic of Indigenous people, and in some job advertisements they’re also mentioning that. So, I think this is quite an important part.” Lam was trained in social work in Hong Kong and researched job requirements related to that field in Canada.

This is important when noting the global relevancy and significance that Indigenous knowledge holds in social work. It is imperative to notice how inclusive the social work programs are in Canada with the inclusion of Indigenous topics so that people know about the history but at the same time strengthen the values that various First Nations hold.

According to Dr. Shauneen Pete, Executive Lead of the UR Strategic Plan, All Our Relations, the Indigenous Advisory Circle defines Indigenization at the University of Regina as, “The transformation of the existing academy by including Indigenous knowledges, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials as well as the establishment of physical and epistemic spaces that facilitate the ethical stewardship of a plurality of Indigenous knowledges and practices so thoroughly as to constitute an essential element of the university. It is not limited to Indigenous people, but encompasses all students and faculty, for the benefit of our academic integrity and our social viability.”

When Indigenous topics and knowledge is included in the education provided at the university level to all students, it is a key indicator of success. Programs like the ISW program is one of the first steps to increase academic programming partnerships and collaborations with FNUniv. This will address the definition of Indigenization further and add toward the goal decided. Even adding spaces for students to learn, interact, and engage on campus and in community is imperative to remedy the knowledge gap.

According to Katie Hyslop in The Tyee, “’Someone who graduates with an Indigenous specialization will learn that cultural knowledge, they will learn about identity, colonialism. But more importantly they will learn, or relearn, ceremonial teachings or cultural practices,’ said Jacquie Green, alumni and director of the UVic school of social work.”

Green was working on her social work master’s degree and went around British Columbia to learn more about the Indigenous communities, asking if the people they hired were equipped to work with the communities.

The answer shocked her as most of them said no, because they graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). This is where programs like ISW bridge that gap and give students the tools, capabilities, learning, education, and skill to work with the communities better and more effectively.

A BSW degree includes required courses in Indigenous studies, but an ISW degree seems to enhance cultural understanding and competency in practice significantly. Social workers need to understand the history and cultural factors in order to properly support Indigenous populations, making an ISW degree and required Indigenous courses in a traditional BSW degree very important.

It is evident that the strides made by social work are ongoing, but there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to be done. By amplifying Indigenous voices and fostering meaningful dialogue, Saskatchewan can continue advancing the social health and well-being of Indigenous peoples.

Saskatchewan’s Social Work Week remains a poignant reminder of the enduring impact and ongoing evolution of the social work profession and its results, particularly within the Indigenous community. A path still needs to be laid out to create a more inclusive and equitable society where every individual has the opportunity to thrive and live with dignity and respect, as well as uphold every profession with integrity.

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