Published on August 9th, 2016 | from CAMH

Identity is key to understanding Indigenous-Centered Social Work

By Walter Lindstone, Social Worker, Aboriginal Service, CAMH

To understand the work I do at CAMH, you would have to get to know me. Who I am in a cultural sense is inexplicably linked with my duties as a social worker. So allow me properly introduce myself.

My name is Walter Lindstone, but I am also known by my spirit name, K’okomis Shkawbaywis of the Marten Clan of the Anishinaabe, and I come from Batchewana First Nation, near Sault Ste. Marie. I received my name from a dream, translated by an elder – a grandmother – who worked in the Gabriel Dumont community where I grew up in Scarborough. My spirit name translates to “You’re Grandmother’s helper”.

I start with this because it’s an important part of my identity as a member of the Anishinaabe people. It is a name that was given by a respected elder who has the rite – that’s spelled ‘r-i-t-e’, as she is able to perform the rites of the ceremony – and the gift to give spirit names. My work is a promise to do right by my name; a way of showing that I have earned that name as well.

Indigenous-Centered Social Work

Clinicians in our Aboriginal Service are hired to provide specific cultural services in addition to clinical services. People like me who are clinically, culturally and spiritually trained are referred to as Indigenous Centered Social Workers. I received a degree from Ryerson University, earning my Bachelor of Social Work through a partnership with the First Nations Technical Institute, and later received further education at Laurier University in their Indigenous Studies program.  When I finished my Masters of Social Work, I applied as a therapist in the Aboriginal Service CAMH.

On a day-to-day basis, my job may not seem very different from other social workers at CAMH. We are booked to see clients (I prefer to call them community members), we provide assessments to those who go through CAMH’s intake and discuss their treatment options, and we continue to ensure they receive the appropriate care while in the hospital as either inpatients or outpatients.

We try to address the physical or mental ailments people face, but also help them understand the specific historical trauma or spiritual adversity that they face as Aboriginal members of society. Our assessment process often generates many questions within the individuals, and it’s at this point where I see my role evolve from therapist to teacher.

Leaning heavily on our Elders to provide spiritual guidance when it is needed, I act as a liaison between Elders and community members who are in need of more spiritual care. We are included in all of those meetings, and are responsible for charting and making notes that will help us consider the person’s ‘wholistic’ care.

Being Bi-Cultural

Being indigenous-centered means that I am also bi-cultural. I belong to two different cultures. We meet a lot of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who don’t know about our culture, and it’s something that I need to explain in layman’s terms, to help people understand the history and traditions of our people.

I also serve as an Oshkaabewis – in a way, a kind of helper or attendant to the Elder. We assist during ceremonies, and ensure that they go smoothly and safely, and it’s these kind of duties that help keep me rooted in my culture. But we also keep an open mind as many First Nations cultures and histories are represented and it’s my duty to ensure we are respectful of the different beliefs systems that I encounter.

Wholistic Care and Identity

Earlier I mentioned the word “wholistic” – that’s not a typo. In my line of work, we promote regular western clinical interventions and spiritually-focused cultural interventions. We look at the whole person, their history and circumstances, and how their emotional, physical, mental and spiritual are intertwined and interconnected.

At the core of our work are three pillars of identity – Land, Language and Social Structure. Making sure that our community members understand the importance of these pillars is an important part of their continued care. These are perfectly embodied in rituals like the Sweat Lodge, which I hope to talk more about in the future.

I started this blog talking about identity because it plays a large role in the work of the Aboriginal Service. Social worker, therapist, teacher, learner, helper, healer, Anishinaabe – these are just a few aspects of my identity, but not all. Part of my work involves helping others rediscover their own identities, in hopes that through discovery they can find healing.


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