The lesson of Kitkatla
Through a 'cultural camp' full of magical moments, native youngsters
reconnect with relatives and roots. Some of the children were in for a
Special to Times Colonist
Sunday, July 23, 2006
On a foggy morning last August, a boat full of children, social workers and
foster parents departed Prince Rupert bound for Dolphin Island, about two
"I don't know why I'm going," a young girl said to Brenda Lewis, one of the
social workers on board. "I know I don't have any family."
"Well, you must," said Lewis, trying to reassure the girl. The trip was
largely Lewis's doing, and she had been told by one of her fellow organizers
that each of the 19 children on the boat had a family member waiting for
them at the other end.
Still, even Lewis was unprepared for what would happen later that morning
when the tiny fishing village of Kitkatla appeared out of the fog.
"I was just this social worker doing this little project," she said. "It
surpassed my wildest expectations."
An adoption worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development in
Prince George, Lewis had pitched the idea a few months earlier of holding a
"cultural camp" for aboriginal children in the care of the government.
Her plan was to take them back to their native communities for a day to meet
their relatives, get a glimpse of their heritage, and possibly, just
possibly, establish some lasting relationships with family.
"I knew for some time we had to try something differently, because
approaching families one by one was not producing the results we wanted,"
The ministry liked her idea and kicked in the money to make it happen, while
Lewis and other social workers made travel arrangements for the children,
their foster parents and social workers. Of the 19 children in care who were
registered as belonging to the village, 15 had never set foot on their
traditional territory, and 12 didn't even know they had relatives living in
Kitkatla, one of the oldest settlements in North America.
The people in Kitkatla, meanwhile, prepared for the visit by finding aunts,
uncles, cousins or grandparents for each of the children coming home.
"A lot of those children we didn't know," said Merle Bolton, a social
development worker for the Kitkatla band. "[But] because I've lived here all
my life, I just had to learn who their parents were and then I would make
As the boat pulled into the dock that morning, dozens of people were waiting
to greet it. They hugged and welcomed the children and ushered them to the
community hall for a lunch of traditional foods like seaweed and oolichan.
"I was worried that our McDonald's crowd wasn't going to take kindly to that
but, you know, those kids were amazing," Lewis said. "They ate it, they
loved it, some went back for seconds."
It was there, in the crowded hall, that one of the women elders spotted the
teenage girl who had insisted that she had no family. She was standing by
herself in a corner of the room.
The elder asked Lewis the girl's name, but it didn't mean anything to the
elder. So Lewis called the girl over to the table where a number of women
from the village were sitting.
"They're trying to figure out who you are in relation to all of this," Lewis
said. "What was your mother's name?"
The girl answered, and the old woman said, "Ah." Then she leaned over to
another elder, said something in her native language, looked back at the
girl and said: "This is your grandmother."
Even now, Lewis gets choked up recalling the smile that spread across the
teenager's face as she clasped hands with her grandmother for the first
"It was pretty profound," Lewis said. "She's an older teenager, so she's not
going to be adopted. But she's made a connection with her family."
It was one of many magical moments that day. The people of Kitkatla, which
has a population of about 500, showed the children their crafts, took them
shell hunting on the beach, and gave them a tour of the village, pointing
out where their grandparents, aunts and uncles live or once lived.
"It was a real surprise to me," Bolton said. "Everything just flowed. ...
The people of Kitkatla really helped out and welcomed those kids, and made
them feel at home and made them feel really important."
The day ended with a traditional feast and a claiming ceremony. The children
were at the back of the hall and, as Lewis remembers it, an elder would yell
to the front and give the child's name. Then the chief would repeat the
child's name and say: "It is time for you to join your people." Then, the
children were escorted to sit and eat with their family members.
"I don't know how many of the kids really got it, but there were social
workers and foster parents just sobbing, they were so moved," Lewis said.
One of the boys, who had told Lewis that he was only going on the trip to
"meet chicks," was ushered to the chief's table.
"He was related to the chief, and whatever happened in that two hours, he
was a different child by the time it was over," Lewis said.
"I don't know whether it lasted; I've thought of him many times. On his
evaluation, to the question what was the most important thing you learned
today, he put, 'I learned respect for myself, my elders, and my people.'
This was the 'I'm-just-going-to-meet-chicks' kid of five hours earlier."
One of the day's greatest successes, however, would surface several months
For years, the ministry had been trying to find a home for two young
brothers. They had exhausted all leads within the family and the aboriginal
On the trip, however, the brothers met an uncle for the first time. They
spent the day together, and recently, the uncle let the ministry know that,
although he was unable to take the boys, he knew of an aunt who might. When
Lewis last heard, the ministry was moving ahead with adoption proceedings.
But for most, the trip gave them something as simple, or monumental, as
learning where they came from.
"To say that you are part of the whale clan from the Tsimshian nation can be
a huge part of your life -- especially in a life that may not have a lot of
other positive pieces," Lewis said. "So I think it's important we give kids
that. I think a lot of non-aboriginal social workers have seen that now."
Bolton adds that it's something that can't be accomplished in another town
or city. "If you want to learn the culture, you go back to where your
village is," she said. "That's where you will learn it."
And as much as the children benefited, so did the people of Kitkatla, Bolton
"I think they were happy. They think about now, 'Yeah, we do have a lot of
children out there that we don't know and we haven't connected with.
Everyone always feels sad when our children are in foster care. So I think
they were excited about [them coming home.]"
The B.C. government appears to be taking the lessons of Kitkatla to heart,
"I think it's one of those ideas ... that is going to really build into
something," Children and Family Development Minister Stan Hagen said
recently. His ministry held two other camps after the Kitkatla success last
year. Two more are planned for the northern region this summer, with others
possible on the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
Hagen, who met Lewis this year when she received a Premier's Award for
leadership, said of the social worker and her idea: "I think she's on to