The Department of Justice and Correctional Services (DOJCS) hosted the “Hear, Listen, Understand” conference March 28 to 30 as a means for frontline workers throughout the Cree Nation to learn, network and reboot.
Offering training, practical information, professional collaboration and a final day focused on self-care, the conference brought together social workers, community justice employees, child protectors and educators. They heard from experts in youth intervention who have worked in difficult environments that gave them a unique understanding of the complexities of social work.
Topics of discussion included how to effectively understand and respond to at-risk youth, the need to challenge pre-conceived notions of sexualized violence, cyberbullying and mental health and why communities must work together as a whole to mitigate bullying and help heal troubled youth. Other workshops looked at ways to handle adolescent substance abuse and addiction and why it’s crucial to address both the behaviour and the environment of young people who exhibit violence and emotionally troubled behaviour.
“The conference was about providing an opportunity for frontline workers to enhance their skills and to get a chance for them to hear from experts in their field,” said DOJCS Director Donald Nicholls. “We canvassed the who’s who of speakers [on frontline work] in Canada and instead of sending people all over the country to hear them speak we figured, ‘Why don’t we bring them here to the Cree Nation?’ We brought in people who could offer good advice, valuable information and innovative approaches for dealing with at-risk youth.
“We wanted to do a conference that would have value and so we thought about the audience that we could have the most impact on,” Nicholls added. “People from the school board, health board, local public health organizations and the justice department, each of these organizations were working together in one room and able to connect with each other.”
The DOJCS then took things a step further, broadcasting the conference through an online livestream and hosting the video broadcast on their website so nobody would miss out.
“With that livestream we’re able to connect with other people in communities who couldn’t be there and broaden the reach [of the event],” said Nicholls. “We also have an HD recording of the conference so people who missed it can simply go to our website, visit the link and listen to the presentation.”
Notable speakers at the Hear, Listen, Understand conference included Leah Parsons, whose daughter Rehtaeh took her own life after being bullied and harassed when a photo of her sexual assault circulated among her high school peers in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Michael Neuts, the founder of the Make Children Better Now Association, shared another story of tragic loss. His son Myles was also a victim of bullying and died after being hung from a coat hook by two fellow students at his elementary school in Chatham, Ontario.
The stories are heartbreaking but the message is the same: bullying has to stop and it’s up to everyone to speak out when we see it happening – and make it clear that it’s not okay.
At the end of the conference, organizers provided participants with books written by two presenters. I Still Love You, by Michael Ungar gives nine strategies for parents with troubled kids to change their children’s behaviour and build resilience. Shawn Loney’s An Army of Problem Solvers speaks specifically to the problems faced by Canada’s First Nations and the road to reconciliation that can be paved by empowering local Indigenous economies.
“We handed out copies to everyone who attended the conference,” said Nicholls. “We wanted people to be able to walk away with something on top of the presentations. When you’re working with youth there’s always that question, ‘What’s the next step?’ You can stabilize [high-risk kids] but then what’s next?’”
Speaker and psychologist Victoria Creighton is the clinical director of the Pine River Institute, a boarding school for adolescents struggling with addiction in Shelbourne, Ontario. She answered Nicholls’ question by saying that the next step is to build a support system.
“We need to offer support structures and continue to foster healing,” she told the Nation. “[At risk youth] need caring adults who are attuned to their needs and who offer structure and support for them to continue to grow and mature.”
Creighton said that her experience at the conference was immensely positive and that she was impressed with the motivation and attitudes of frontline workers in Eeyou Istchee. “Everyone was very warm and welcoming,” she said. “I was amazed by the commitment that I sensed from people. And the traditional food was really good.”
While the first two days of the conference covered the themes of bullying and trauma as well as mental health and wellness, day three of the conference was dedicated entirely to self-care. Nicholls stressed the importance of equipping frontline workers to identify and address their own well-being so they can continue to be an effective source of support for others.
“If you’re not in a good place then you’re not going to be able to help anyone else,” he concluded. “If you’re exhausted or burnt out you need to be able to identify that and know when it’s time to step back, recharge and take time for yourself.”