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

profound surprise.


Lindsay Kines

Special to Times Colonist

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Brenda Lewis


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

hours away.


"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,"

Lewis said.


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

that connection."


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,

as well.


"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