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Report of the Indigenous Social Work Educators’ Network 2005/06 with updates from the 2006 Conference at York University

The CASSW meeting of 2005 was a pivotal meeting for Indigenous social workers in Canada. At that meeting a number of educators and students came together with an interest in renewing efforts to come together and create a national network. Talking circles were held in the Aboriginal caucus and the Aboriginal women’s caucus, and concerns around moving forward as Wunska were discussed and recommendations were made. The following day, Gord Bruyere and Richard Vedan hosted a gathering of Indigenous participants to discuss future activities.

In that meeting, the group decided to retire the name of Wunska as symbol of a new beginning. The pioneering work of Wunska Educators was honoured and the task was given to one participant to officially return the name to Dr. Lauri Gilchrist, whose grandmother had provided the name. Dr. Gilchrist was very pleased and supportive of the group’s decision to evolve Wunska into a new organization. Another participant, Barb Waterfall, volunteered to ask Elders of the area to provide the organization with a new name. She offered them tobacco and they responded that a new name would be available in nine months.

Richard Vedan provided an overview of the history of efforts of Indigenous social work educators and the attached information is that report in its entirety. One of the primary concerns of continuing as Wunska centred around who represented that organization. Wunska had acquired a seat on the board of directors but there was lack of clarity around who was responsible for and involved in voting in board representation. Richard Vedan had sat on the Board of Directors for a period of three years and was, at this CASSW meeting, stepping down. He had accepted an appointment to the CASSW Board of Accreditation. Hence, the “Wunska” seat was about to be vacant. The assembly nominated Raven Sinclair as the new organization representative to the Board and Raven is honoured to serve the 3 year term from June 2005 to June 2008.

The assembly created a notice of motion for the AGM assembly of the CASSW informing them that “Wunska” as the name of the organization was being put to rest and that a new name would be forthcoming at the 2006 AGM. The notice advised that the interim name would be the Indigenous Social Work Educators’ Network (ISWEN). Update: At the 2006 Aboriginal Caucus, a naming ceremony was held and the new name of ISWEN is the Thunderbird Nesting Circle (TNC). Many thanks to Elders Dan and Mary Lou Smoke for the ceremony and their participation in this year’s activities.

2005/6 Activities:

The Indigenous Social Work Educators’ Network is a manifestation of the efforts of those who are interested in being part of an active and motivated collective of emerging Indigenous scholars. The ISWEN has access to a website – www.aboriginalsocialwork.ca and some members have registered on that site. Richard Vedan’s background paper has been posted below. Several email dialogues have taken place with respect to issues that have been affecting Indigenous social work educators, in particular, lack of resources provided for Indigenous faculty and programs across the country, and a perceived lack of acceptance of the importance of Indigenous-based curricula and program delivery. In response to these concerns, brought to the fore by the resignation of an Indigenous colleague from an eastern school of social work, the network, under the leadership of Gord Bruyere, developed and submitted a letter of concern to a school of social work. The school acknowledged the letter but nothing has come out of this collective action.

Another brief dialogue was held with respect the initiation of an Indigenous Research conference by non-Indigenous social work academics. Several Network members have been approached individually and invited to present their work at this conference. Several non-Indigenous academics are also presenting on Indigenous social work issues. The intention of the dialogue was to explore issues of “voice” and representation of Indigenous social work issues and to raise some awareness of the issues.

Most significantly, the network is evolving as a supportive and collegial collective of Indigenous scholars. It is hoped that the network will continue to dialogue on issues of common concern and to provide support to one another as we develop Indigenous social work in Canada


The Indigenous Social Work Educators’ Network must be commended for the increasing number of excellent publications that have appeared in the last year. Up and coming scholars are encouraged to begin sharing their writings through publication in peer-reviewed journals. Aspiring writers are invited to contact published writers for advice and support.


Congratulations to Dr. Cyndy Baskin who acquired her PhD in the summer of 2005, shortly after the CASSW conference! Good work Cyndy!!

Also, congratulations to Dr. Paul Tamburro who acquired his PhD in the spring of 2006 just before this year’s conference! Congratulations Paul!!

Board Representation

The CASSW Board of Directors hold two meetings per year. Raven Sinclair has attended both of them and become familiar with the workings of the board. The board meetings have been marathon sessions focused on financial issues and finding ways to present a balanced budget for the organization. After the 2005 conference, the organization was faced with a $19,000 deficit, which now must be recouped. The Board will be presenting a balanced budget with suggestions for recouping last year’s deficit.

In support of this exercise in financial responsibility, and as an act of support, the Thunderbird Nesting Circle declared its intent to operate financially independently of the CASSW in terms of Aboriginal Caucus expenses. The Thunderbird Nesting Circle offers a respectful challenge to other committees and caucuses to take a similar supportive stance.

2007 AGM and CASSW Conference, Cree/Dakota territory, Saskatoon, Sask.

The University of Regina Faculty of Social Work and the First Nations University of Canada School of Indian Social Work will be co-hosting the CASSW AGM and Conference in late May of 2007. The Thunderbird Nesting Circle members and participants are invited and welcomed to Cree/Dakota territory where, it is anticipated, Aboriginal caucus events, feast, and activities will take place at Wanuskewin Heritage Park – a traditional Cree encampment on the Saskatchewan River. We look forward to seeing you in 2007!

Passing the Flame

Here is an email from Mac Saulis, former WUNSKA chair.

Greetings all of you. I have been in the fray of the developments in the Aboriginal social work arena for over 23 years now. I have participated in several developmental activities over all of these years, which include program delivery to our populations, development of curriculum, and now the development of our own programs rooted in our own worldviews, epistemologies, ontologies, and healing practices. All of this to say I’ve been around the block and am encouraged by this latest development that your new generation of dedicated Aboriginal people are showing.

I applaud each and everyone one of you as to a large degree we still have lonely journeys within the post-secondary institutions. We still have barriers to breakdown or climb over as the need dictates. I offer you WUNSKA which was a creation of all of the Aboriginal social work educators in Canada, at the time. WUNSKA in Cree means “waking up as if you have been asleep a long time”. It also has the intent of “standing up”. I acknowledge Lauri Gilchrist and Kathy Absolon for their work on this naming task. The staff of the Department of Indian Social Work at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College must be acknowledged including Sid Fiddler, Yvonne Howse, George Inkster, and Thelma Knight, who had been breaking ground in Social Work education for another generation before that, with their Elders, Tony and Emma Sand, Danny Musqua, and many other Elders they used at their cultural camps. They were very patient with us newcomers to this territory of Indigenous social work education, and offered us their medicines and ceremonies to keep us going. Others in other parts of Canada; Richard Vedan, Jim Albert, Sheila Hardy, Dolly McGuire, Joyce Helmer, Marilyn Rasi who provided the WUNSKA logo, and Mike Hart; came together on various research projects, studies, curriculum developments and kinship to heighten the validity of the Aboriginal worldview.

I was the Chair of the CASSW Accreditation Board, a first for an Aboriginal social work educator and in the very powerful position strengthened the meaning and influence of Section 8 of the accreditation standards. We also lobbied for a permanent place on the Board of CASSW where many of us have served. We moved the CASSW along as an organization where Aboriginal people can work shoulder to shoulder and still fight for our own interests. We also intervened with the CASW to recognize Aboriginal Wholistic Healing practice as a legitimate form of practice; a job not yet completed.

We senior social work educators who built WUNSKA did not do it for ourselves but we consider this as you are WUNSKA. I wish you the best in your work and hope that someday our paths will all cross and that we can share “war stories” and show our scars as the struggle for Indigenous acknowledgement continues. I am there for you in whatever way I can be of service.

Wunska History
Richard Vedan, Director, First Nations House of Learning, UBC

The following brief history of the Aboriginal Social Work Educators Network has been compiled drawing from papers and correspondence written by members of the Aboriginal community, Mac Saulis and other Network members. The material referenced dates from 1992 to 1997.The remainder is the author’s recollection of Network events in the 1992 to 2005 time frame.

In June 1992 a number of Aboriginal social work educators arranged to meet in Prince Edward Island, at the time of the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work. For a number of years previous, some Schools of Social Work had begun to hire Aboriginal faculty, but in most cases there was only one or two Aboriginal faculty in any one school. The need to meet with other Aboriginal educators was expressed by a number of people and a proposal was developed by Mac Saulis of Carleton to get funding in order to establish a network. A successful proposal meant the necessary funding was available for the first meeting in Prince Edward Island which was attended by the following:

Laurie Gilchrist, U Vic, Yvonne House, SIFC, Michael Yellowbird, UBC, Joyce White, Malaspina College, Jim Albert, Carleton, Barbara Riley, Laurentian, Ann Charter, U of Manitoba, Michael Smith, Health Canada, Louis Sorin, George Inkster, SIFC, Dora Wilson, Cowichan Band Council, Maurice Squires, Northwest Band Social Workers, Vera Manuel, NADP, Bernice Squakin, NVIT, Debbie Foxcroft , Nuu-Chah-Nulth Family and Child Services, Mac Saulis, Carleton.

Three broad objectives were set out for the network:

Professional development, looking at the role of Aboriginal faculty in a School of Social Work, and assisting each other in areas such as appropriate curriculum development, and balancing demands from the communities and the university. Another part of the objective was the creation of a forum for writing, recognizing the need for more appropriate teaching materials.
Provision of input into Aboriginal social welfare issues, such as the social welfare aspects of self-government.
Provision of support to each other on a personal and professional level recognizing the sense of isolation and of being misunderstood that is frequently experienced by Aboriginal educators.
Following the first meeting the Network was expanded by including Aboriginal Community College social service educators and those named above were joined by: Kathy Absolon (U Vic), Sue Deranger (Laurentian), Sid Fiddler (SIFC), Sheila Hardy (Laurentian), Michael Hart (U of Man), Joyce Helmer (Sudbury), Thelma Knight (SIFC), Patricia McGuire (Rainy Lake Ojibway), Herb Nabigon (Laurentian), Art Petahtegoose ( Cambrian College), Marilyn Rasi (Cambrian College) Lee Seto-Thomas (Gatineau), Richard Vedan (Langara College), and Schyler Webster (Laurentian).

Over the next several years a number of research projects were undertaken and completed that brought members of the Network together on a regular basis. From the outset Elders have been part of the Wunska circle; present as participants at all meetings and advising in all research activities. The talking circle has been as the format via which all network meetings are conducted.

Native Family Violence Curriculum Project:

The Aboriginal Social Work Educators’ Network was the advisory body to a national curriculum project on Native Family Violence. With assistance from Michael Smith of Health Canada, the Network secured a research grant from the Family Violence Prevention Division, Health Canada to develop curricula to address family violence in our communities. With Mac Saulis as Project Coordinator research funds were administered through CASSW. The Family Violence in Native Communities curriculum project was completed in March 1994. A Resource List and Bibliography were compiled and a series of papers written by: Kathy Absolon (U Vic), Sid Fiddler (SIFC), Edward Connors, Barbara Riley (Laurentian), Ann Charter ( U of Man) and Michael Yellowbird (UBC) comprise the course content reading materials for the course.

International Aboriginal Social Work Conference:

An International conference was held at the Little Shuswap Indian Band, Chase, British Columbia in March 1994. Social work practitioners and Social work educators from Australia, Mexico (Chiapas), the United States and across Canada presented papers. Funds from Health Canada contributed to the conference which gave the Network an opportunity to meet with Aboriginal social service helpers and to learn and share our concerns and develop directions for the future.


The Cree word “Wunska” translates as “rising up”, “to rise from a resting position”. It is what Elders would call out to children and youth at the beginning of each day; to rise up from their places of rest, and get on with the activities of each new day. Used as a name, it was given by a Cree Elder to the Aboriginal Social Work and Social Services Educators Network meeting in Saskatoon during the summer of 1994.

First Nations Youth Smoking Survey:

During the mid to late 1990’s Wunska undertook another two national research projects.

For the National Study of Smoking Practices, Beliefs and Attitudes Among First Nations Youth, Wunska collaborated with one hundred First Nations communities across Canada 1995- 97. Each of the one hundred First Nations communities across Canada nominated two community members to be trained as Community Based Researchers (CBR’s) to examine the use of tobacco products by 10-14 years olds in their community and to research the history of tobacco use in their community. Two hundred CBR’s were trained in culturally relevant date collection and data analysis methods in workshop conducted at seven training centres across Canada. The research was developed and carried out in a manner that was respectful of community based protocols and relevant to the individual needs and interests of each community. As with all Wunska gatherings talking circle format was the primary means of interaction and local Elders participated throughout. Mac Saulis, Research Coordinator for the Project, remarked on the project as it was concluded:

The project has historic dimensions to it, to the point where we can claim some firsts:

first project to have full national first nations participation
first study of its size and scope; over 4500 respondents (youth) over 2000 key informants, over 600 Elders, and using 4 distinct instruments
first study controlled and managed by First Nations researchers.
First Nations Community-Based Social Welfare Inquiry:

In 1997 the First Nations Community-Based Social Welfare Inquiry was conducted in 25 First Nations communities across Canada with CBR’s using a variation of the methodology used in the tobacco study. Twenty-one CBR’s attended two, four day, training sessions which were held at Laurentian University and at the Anishnabe Institute near Sudbury.

The research objectives were:

to gather knowledge on the experiences of people to social welfare program, and specifically to social assistance.
to gather knowledge and insights to the phenomenon of dependence, as an outcome of social programming, and how social programming has impacted on the culture and tradition of social welfare in the community.
to gather knowledge and insights as to the nature and form of more responsive social safety net programs and measures, both mandated and voluntary; but which also support the social welfare of First Nations communities.
to build the capacity, at the level of the community, to undertake essential research that is based on Native paradigms.
Wunska and Board of Directors of CASSW:

At the 1996 CASSW Annual General Meeting a Constitutional amended was approved by the membership that provided for Wunska to appoint a member to the Board of Directors. At that time Jjm Albert (Carleton) was appointed as the Wunska representative. Mac Saulis was appointed as the Wunska representative in 1999. Richard Vedan (UBC) appointed 2002 completed a three year appointment in 2005. At the 2005 CASSW AGM and Conference, the attendees appointed Raven Sinclair (University of Regina) to a three year term as the ISWEN representative. Richard Vedan accepted an appointment to the Board of Accreditation and will serve along with Gord Bruyere (NVIT) until 2008.

Following the completion of the last research project, the First Nations Community-Based Social Welfare Inquiry, available research funds became more difficult to access due to changes in government policy and direction. In the past the only source of funds available to Wunska were the research funds available via Health Canada. The research project development and proposal writing had been undertaken primarily as a volunteer activity on the part of Malcolm Saulis and Jim Albert of Carleton. The proximity of Carleton to federal department headquarters is seen as having been a definite advantage in securing the resources for the projects that were undertaken.

Since the Aboriginal Social Work Educators Network, Wunska, first met in Prince Edward Island, the research projects undertaken have been used as a model for capacity building community based research activities by students, community members, educators and practitioners. The talking circle format used by Wunska in conducting its activities has been adopted effectively into the teaching methods of many of its members. With the informal support of Aboriginal colleagues a number of Aboriginal educators have gone on to successfully complete studies at the doctoral level and based upon the introduction, experience and mentoring afforded by Wunska are developing culturally congruent research agendas with their work.

Since the first gathering of the Aboriginal Social Work Educators Network in 1992 the Network has not had the benefit of core funding, or program and support staff to work to develop in pursuit of the initial three objectives in a consistent manner. While the number of Aboriginal Social Educators teaching in schools across the country has increased, the issues and concerns that led to the first Network meeting still apply and will continue to do so for some time to come, along with other concerns and issues that have been identified over the past decade and a half. Deans and Directors have been and continue to be supportive of Aboriginal approaches to Social Work Education, however, Aboriginal Social Work Educators continue to be working in relative isolation. Wunska, the Aboriginal Social Work Educators Network, can be said to be an emerging and evolving body with challenges to determine future direction, next steps and who will be taking them.