The smell of burning sage filled the offices of the new Parents Legal Centre in downtown Campbell River during its official opening on Thursday morning.
The office provides free legal support to families facing child apprehension on northern Vancouver Island, an issue that disproportionately affects Indigenous communities.
Larry Hanson, an Elder from Homalco First Nation, smudged each room, while Laverne Henderson of Wei Wai Kum Nation sang and drummed to bless the new facility.
Henderson, who works with the Laichwiltach Family Life Society, called it a “beautiful building that’s going to be helping our children to come back to their roots, to their own people, to help our parents work hard on themselves to make them better.”
June Johnson, an Elder from We Wai Kai Nation, said she hopes the centre will help prevent Indigenous children from losing their culture in the child welfare system.
“It’s really important for this service to be here,” said Johnson, who is Elder-in-Residence at North Island College.
“There’s so many children that go into care in non-Native homes, and I’m really hoping… (they will) be able to be raised with the culture, their language and their identity, because they lose that once they get into care, out from their communities, they don’t have that anymore.”
The Parents Legal Centre began operations at the beginning of the year but Thursday was its official opening.
The Campbell River office is one of nine Parents Legal Centres being set up across the province by the Legal Services Society of BC.
“One of the real challenges for us is the number of children in care has been difficult to reduce,” said Mark Benton, executive director of the Vancouver-based group, noting that Indigenous people represent more than 60 per cent of children in care.
“Overall in Canada, there are more children in care now than were ever in the residential schools at any given time,” Benton said. “We’ve got a big social problem.”
Laverne Henderson of Wei Wai Kum FN and Larry Hanson of Homalco FN bless the new Parents Legal Centre in Campbell River with smudging, song and drumming. pic.twitter.com/Fcr64N6YDn
— David Gordon Koch (@davidgordonkoch) July 11, 2019
The new Parents Legal Centre opens following a 2016 report on Indigenous child welfare in B.C. by Grand Chief Ed John.
The report recommended Parents Legal Centres in Campbell River, Prince George, Kamloops, Williams Lake, Terrace or Smithers in northern B.C., along with Surrey and Victoria, citing a high demand in those communities.
The new service is geared primarily towards Indigenous people – reconciliation is an important driver of the initiative – but anyone can apply for support, said Brian Dybwad, managing lawyer at the Campbell River office.
The group will provide help at any stage in the child removal process, he said.
“We can help our clients navigate through the system,” he said.
That can start when a social worker from the Ministry of Child and Family Development or another agency first contacts a family. People can simply walk through the door with a question, he said.
“Even if there’s no court process involved, the clients are still entitled to have legal representation,” Dybwad said.
Staff will help families address the concerns of social workers about the safety of a child, to find a negotiated solution as soon as possible to avoid going to court.
The group aims to help families navigate the complexities of paperwork and the legal system, and to provide them with education about their rights.
“People already have enough heightened emotion around the removal or abduction of the children,” Dybwad said. “And then going into the foreign environment of being in a courtroom, I can understand why anybody would have anxiety around that.”
Staff at the Parents Legal Centre will also connect families with resources in the community, such as housing and counselling. The safety of children is central, Dybwad said.
“In all child protection cases, the paramount features are safety of the child and best interests of the child,” he said.
The Parents Legal Centre has a four-person staff, and the facility itself is designed to make families feel comfortable, including an Elders’ Room with couches, and reflective windows on the ground-floor office to provide privacy for those seeking help.
At the opening of the Parents Legal Centre in Campbell River, which provides free legal services to families facing child apprehension. Grand Chief Ed John’s 2016 report on Indigenous child welfare in BC recommended a PLC in Campbell River due to high demand for the services here pic.twitter.com/WanRXy5kBt
— David Gordon Koch (@davidgordonkoch) July 11, 2019
Increasing numbers of people are coming forward to learn about their rights and to get legal help, he said. Staff will be travelling the North Island from Courtenay to Port Hardy to provide legal counsel during court hearings.
New Democrat MP Rachel Blaney was in attendance at the Thursday morning event. She stressed the importance of the service and said there’s a lack of resources available to prevent Indigenous children from being separated from their families.
“I’m so glad there’s a place that people in our community, Indigenous people can go and feel like they have allies,” she said. “That is such a significant step in the right direction.”
The Parents Legal Centre in Campbell River is located at 870D 13th Ave. They can be contacted at 778-336-9480 or PLCCampbellRiver@lss.bc.ca.