Rusty Whitford and Justin MacDonald know the importance of investing in a child’s culture and community and how inclusivity practices can be the positive difference in the lives of Indigenous kids in foster care.
Rusty grew up in Fort Smith, NWT, where memories of hunting and fishing with his father, a residential school survivor of Fort Resolution, shaped him.
With a Métis-Cree heritage on his father’s side, cultural values, practices, community and family are the values he continues to model in his own home where he resides with his partner, Justin.
Rusty and Justin have been foster parents for high-risk youth for 10 years. Rusty is also a resource and recruitment social worker with a Delegated Aboriginal Agency. Although he holds a master’s degree in social work, he says that his best teachers have been those youth who have resided in their home.
Together, they foster two teens, 16- and 18-year-old brothers, who they helped to reunite.
Three years ago, 15-year-old Alex came into their home. He’d never met his Aboriginal extended family because his paternal family raised him within their culture. Because of Rusty’s own cultural values, he set out to locate Alex’s family in British Columbia and his extended family in the Northwest Territories.
Two months after Alex came to their home, Rusty and Justin organized a Thanksgiving meal so he could meet his lost siblings and family. It turned out that Alex was living only minutes away from his six siblings who he had never met. After that event, Rusty says Alex’s world changed for the better. His younger brother Richard eventually moved into their home as well.
When Rusty decided to facilitate a trip up to the family in Hay River, it meant instant connection and belonging for Alex and Richard. But reuniting with Alex’s 30 to 40 relatives all at once came with mixed emotions. “There was the boys’ happiness of instant belongingness mixed with anger about why it took, in Alex’s case, 17 years to return home and meet his extended family,” said Rusty.
Alex visits his siblings and family regularly and is in touch with them on Facebook as a result of Rusty and Justin practising their Indigenous values on culture and inclusivity. They often host big family gatherings on special occasions for Alex and Richard’s family to come and visit.
In line with Rusty’s educational focus, Alex and Rusty deliver caregiver workshops on how to integrate Indigenous culture for foster families.
The family also participates in powwows; traditional drumming courses and attend Hobiyee, a Nisga’a new year celebration in February-March, as well as Aboriginal Day. On Aboriginal Day, they take the kids out of school to participate.
They use smudging as a matter of course and have chosen to learn other cultural practices related to fish, food and medicine gathering. Indigenous artworks purchased at powwows are displayed all over their house and have inspired Alex’s artistic pursuits.
Rusty is adamant that the cultural and inclusivity practices in their home have created placement stability and long-term permanency by mitigating the anxiety, depression, stress and suicidal ideation in their youth. He said this was accomplished by reuniting families, providing a sense of belonging, spending one-to-one time with the kids, respecting them, apologizing to the kids when as caregivers, they make mistakes, and ensuring that the boys’ interests are represented in the home.
“We don’t call them our foster kids,” said Rusty. “We call them nephews. They call us uncle.”
He emphasizes that you don’t have to be Indigenous to make that cultural connection happen. “You just have to be willing to learn, be curious, to reach out and be committed to connecting,” he said. “Just start small.”
Earlier this year, Alex received a Child and Youth Award through the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Rusty and Justin helped Alex raise $8,000 through bursaries and grants to pay for his post-secondary makeup program in Vancouver. Alex’s academic pursuits have also been financially and verbally supported through his social worker and some ministry funding.
It’s been quite the convoluted journey, but Rusty has built a life that integrates his own Indigenous background with his education in social services and an ever expanding community that includes his foster sons’ extended families.
He’s a living example of his Métis grandmother’s family values that get translated as, “There’s always room for one more.”
B.C. Federation of Foster Parent Associations: www.bcfosterparents.ca/
If you're interested in more information, please call B.C.’s fostering line at 1 800 663-9999, or visit: http://ow.ly/t6db30fxewh