Many years of supporting Indigenous women through counselling and other advocacy work has taught Dr. Cathy Richardson/Kinewesquao that sometimes a small gesture can go a long way. A few weeks ago, she started a GoFundMe crowdsourcing campaign to help “get the boot off the neck” of Indigenous mothers.
“I wanted to help Indigenous moms because I know they are targeted by the state,” Richardson told the Nation. “People sometimes need a little help to get started. The idea was a woman could take a loan like this to get something resolved or going. When she has the money, she puts it back in the pot and another woman could get that loan.”
While the campaign raised $849 in its first week, Richardson aims to reach $12,000, which could provide six women with loans of $2,000 to start small businesses, pay for legal support or assist with other urgent needs. The initiative is a form of microlending, a peer-to-peer financing concept that has become popular in recent years to support entrepreneurship and alleviate poverty.
As the director of First Peoples Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Richardson strives to nurture a sense of belonging for students far from home while building bridges to Indigenous knowledge keepers around the world. Her group of Métis post-secondary educators and cultural supporters in Montreal has established an advisory of five women to send out proposal calls, make selections and manage interest-free loans.
“I don’t really have the [application] process yet but I’ll probably work with the Montreal Native Women’s Shelter to start with and just quietly let people know we have this fund,” explained Richardson. “As we get started, we could give a few loans and see how long it takes the women to get on their feet and pay it back. Maybe at some point we would form a little non-profit foundation to support Indigenous moms.”
Richardson has a long career as an educator, researcher and counsellor specializing in violence prevention and recovery. Twice a delegate to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, her work has often focused on decolonizing approaches to social work and the intersections of structural and interpersonal violence.
The crowdsourcing campaign stemmed from Indigenous counselling experiences early in her career. Young women would often arrive with similar stories of a neighbour calling child protection services after overhearing a domestic argument and get stuck in this system.
“Once they had a social worker in their life, it seemed they could never get rid of her,” recalled Richardson. “They would often lose their kids, not because they were bad mothers. Maybe they had just partied a bit. I started trying to help them find family-based solutions and got fed up with the system.”
As she believes legal aid isn’t enough to help these women keep their children, one motivation for her funding campaign is to access lawyers to fight the allegations Indigenous women commonly face. Richardson also highlighted the problem of urban Indigenous women being incarcerated for unpaid tickets.
“It’s important to me to find ways to get out of this structural jam,” she said. “Organizations might offer counselling, legal advice, job or housing support, but sometimes you just need a little money. At an interpersonal level, sometimes people are feeling hopeless – offering a little opportunity like this could make a big difference for them.”
Co-founder of the Centre for Response-Based Practice in Duncan, British Columbia, Richardson said this dignity-driven counselling approach helps people overcome hardships by instilling positive social responses. Instead of perceiving victims of violence as somehow deficient, it builds on culture-based strength and existing capabilities for self-empowerment.
“Just because we have problems, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with us,” affirmed Richardson. “We would see things like substance abuse as an understandable response to emotional pain, ways they try to help themselves. We don’t judge if we think their responses aren’t healthy – we can say ‘wow, it’s amazing you kept yourself alive so long’.”
This humanistic approach helps those feeling isolated, a common experience in the pandemic. Counselling sessions from this perspective seek to build connections, perhaps with families or friends discussing their loneliness out on the land to deepen a sense of belonging.
In 2019, Richardson applied these skills facilitating emotional support in healing tents set up following Corey Payette’s powerful musical Children of God, which dealt with residential school oppression. After the opening night’s performance, she told the audience, “It takes courage to be a witness.”
“Response-based practice is not just what happened to you but what comes after,” she explained. “For decades, people denied residential school ever happened. If an Indigenous person brought it up, they would be accused of lying. That’s what makes people suffer so much.”
In her newest book, Facing the Mountain: Indigenous Healing in the Shadow of Colonialism, Richardson explores this concept as she shares her own experience as an Indigenous woman with Métis, Cree and Gwichin heritage. She suggests it’s easier for the state to view Indigenous people as unfit to manage their lives when they are collectively portrayed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
She also discusses health issues her family has experienced from living in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, which she relates to worldwide Indigenous struggles opposing mining companies. A video on her GoFundMe page emphasizes the marginalization and unique vulnerabilities of Indigenous women and the importance of empowering them.
“Targeted groups experience a disproportionate amount of violence,” Richardson said. “There are different ways colonization is still at work to keep people seen through a deficit lens. Our approach is we believe people, help them explore their resistance, values and culture – it’s not part of mainstream psychology or counselling at all.”
This crowdsourcing initiative is inspired in part by Richardson’s personal experiences with poverty. Although she was fortunate to have a supportive mother, she knows the transformative effect a loan would have had.
“That feeling of being cared about and valued can do a lot for a person – that’s the kind of effect we’re trying to have,” Richardson concluded.