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Cree organizations host special needs symposium to improve services for the disabled

BY Ben Powless Dec 16, 2022

The Cree School Board organized a Special Needs Symposium in Gatineau from November 29 to December 1, in conjunction with Child and Family Services of the Cree Nation Government and the Disability Programs Specialized Services of the Cree Health Board. 

It was a chance for parents and caregivers of children with special needs to connect, attend workshops that offered educational and practical tools, and to provide feedback to the different bodies of the CNG. The gathering comes after 2022 was declared the Cree Year of Special Needs. About 300 children, family members, social workers, educators and others attended.

A 2017 study showed there were 900 children across the Cree communities with spectrums of special needs or disabilities. 

CSB Chairperson Sarah Pash told the Nation that all too often, parents and caregivers of these kids feel isolated, that their needs aren’t being met, and that they’re not being heard. She said this was especially true during the pandemic, when parents struggled to find services and keep up with their children’s lesson plans. 

She hoped the conference would ensure not only “that parents feel good, that they’re learning and feeling empowered, but as the Cree School Board, we’re hoping to take away information to plan to address the gaps and systems to support everyone with special needs and diverse learning needs.”

Before the conference, the CSB held community dialogues in six of the Cree communities, where they invited parents to learn about services and supports offered and to share feedback on their needs. Pash said that this information was used to create the content for the conference.

Three communities were unable to host dialogues because they were in mourning, including Whapmagoostui, Waswanipi and Ouje-Bougoumou, and Pash said the CSB will return to those communities in January to report on their action plan and get feedback on the plan.

The school board also brought in Child and Family Services under the CNG, which manages daycares, and the Disability Programs Specialized Services of the CBH, which already deals with many of the special needs individuals. Pash said the school board developed a protocol with the CHB to support individuals with special needs and to share information between the two institutions. 

One of the main challenges for the Cree education system is to move beyond a Western understanding of disability, according to Pash. She said that approach focuses on a “deficit perspective” where kids are defined by what they don’t know or can’t do. 

Instead, she wants to evolve an approach based on Cree values and culture, which see every child as being teachers, as having their own gifts, and to demonstrate that they are loved and valued.

Parental feedback identified goals such as community awareness weeks, more ramps and sidewalks, adapted equipment and vehicles, land-based healing and education, and centres for those with special needs that would support them living and working “as independently as possible, with as much dignity as possible,” according to Pash.

But perhaps the biggest change would be in how the community responds to individuals with special needs, she explained. “There’s a need for awareness and for the entire community to be a support system,” she added. 

Pash said that she used to be a special-ed teacher and is also a parent of a child with a special needs file. “So, this comes from a personal space,” she said.

Stella Masty, CNG negotiator and file holder for the conference, agreed. “There’s a disconnection. People need to feel a belonging to community. Not just wrap-around services, but also outside of the home and community,” she said. 

“Lots of families feel isolated, people don’t know how to communicate with them,” she added. In addition to raising awareness and teaching people how to talk to those with special needs, she said there was a need for legislation, policies, funding and family support for full-time caregivers. 

Parents also feel isolated politically, she admitted, since the issue was being passed off between the school board or the health board to deal with. However, she said the Grand Chief, Mandy Gull-Masty, indicated she wouldn’t shove it around. 

Masty said the CNG was focused on “removing silos” to ensure that special needs children and their families could access diagnoses and services in a timely manner, noting that there can be long delays in getting appointments which then force them to travel outside the community, leaving other children at home.

Masty also pointed to a need for universal screening. The study that pointed out 900 children with special needs was only based on a limited survey. She said the CBH indicated it worked with 80 to 90 clients who were living off reserve. 

“It takes a community to raise a child, to raise and uplift a family that needs support. We’re trying to do it in a Cree way,” she added. 

Masty said the conference is just a first step, and now the CNG will be focused on pushing for programs, services, legislation and funding, including from Quebec and Canada. For their part, the CSB is planning another symposium for next fall, this time for educators and other staff.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.