Smagnis Says: The answer lies within the leadership of the community and instilling cultural pride. Check out the article (below the Autralian article) below entitled “Opening The Eyes Aboriginal Youth” on a program the Heiltsuk in Bella Bella have in place for many years now.
The Balunu Indigenous Youth Healing Foundation was an Indigenous-owned and -run therapeutic camp.
“I’m not too proud of what I’ve done but, in a way, I’m glad I did it because my little brothers have looked at it,” says Mark*, the oldest of seven siblings.
“It’s good knowing that they’ve seen what happens if you do the wrong thing … They learned from my mistakes and I’ve learned from them as well.”
Mark, a young Indigenous man from Darwin, began getting trouble with the police around the age of 14.
“I was placed in youth diversion but then I was reoffending and I spent a few weeks in detention,” he says. “That sort of opened my eyes about it a bit, seeing how the boys were in there.”
The Northern Territory’s youth detention system shot to international attention last year when the ABC broadcast numerous incidents of harsh treatment and abuse. It sparked a royal commission and the fallout contributed to a staggering election loss for the Country Liberal government, which had slashed youth and diversion programs during its term.
Now the new Labor administration is scrambling to improve the system while simultaneously addressing high rates of youth crime affecting an increasingly distressed community. Authorities are looking to other solutions – some new and some old.
After consistent trouble with the law, Mark was sent to Balunu Indigenous Youth Healing Foundation, an Indigenous-owned and -run therapeutic camp for young people identified as being at risk of suicide or in contact with the criminal justice system.
For the seven or so years it ran before it was defunded in 2012, Indigenous youth workers and community elders took groups of children across the harbour from Darwin to a remote camping spot at Talc Head. Balunu’s founder, David Cole, says having Indigenous mentors was “critical” to its success.
“The [workers] were there to let us know that you can talk to us, you don’t have to hide anything, you don’t have to feel shame about anything,” Mark says. “It was up to us to take that first step and say this is what’s going on at home, or I’ve been feeling like this for a while, and it sort of takes off from there.”
The camp had strict rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no phones.
Balunu was not restricted to Indigenous youth but the activities and lessons over the week-long trip were geared towards cultural Indigenous knowledge and connection.
“I learned how to make spears from Uncle David and I teach my little brothers now,” Mark says. “They ask if Dad taught me and I just laugh – Dad didn’t teach me anything. It’s good to have the knowledge to pass down and you feel good about yourself.”
Jeannie Gadambua, an Indigenous elder from Maningrida, took care of the girls’ camps at Balunu. “I used to teach them cultural way – hunting, sitting down at night and telling them history about how Aboriginal people had their young kids before with no smoking and no drinking,” she tells Guardian Australia.
“In the evening I’d taken them fishing – I had to keep an eye on them girls … When I used to take them they’d get homesick and desperate for what they’d been going through – like ganja or drinking … I used to tell them, ‘You’ve got plenty of time to do that, just listen.’”
Tash*, a teenage girl from Darwin, says: “Being an Aboriginal person, especially in this city, we miss out on a lot of things like that.
“So when we do go on the camps, they’re teaching us all that stuff. It’s cool, if they didn’t teach us that stuff that’s a whole chapter from my culture that I would have missed out on.”
Tash was never placed in detention – an escape she believes might only be due to her physical disability – but was in and out of diversion programs. From a young age she was repeatedly in trouble with police, including for car theft.
“I guess I was just really lost, troubled,” she says. “I was just sick of everything and I was like, ‘Fuck it, I might as well go to jail,’ you know. But the camp shows you you’re not alone and, if you need help, whatever your problem is it’s not stupid.”
“It’s opening more doors for Indigenous people, especially younger ones, because we don’t have that much stuff in Darwin. A lot of people think we do but a lot of programs that have been made keep getting cut.”
Australia’s juvenile justice system contains two main principles: detention should be used only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period.
While the numbers of children in NT detention are small – often fewer than 100 at any one time – the rates are troubling. The territory has the highest rate of youth imprisonment in the country and more than 96% of juvenile inmates are Indigenous. About three-quarters are on remand. Almost two-thirds are repeat offenders.
Cole estimates more than 750 children came through Balunu. According to a 2013 University of New South Wales review, 93% of Balunu participants over a three-year period came from broken families. Ninety per cent had alcohol problems and 68% had drug issues. Almost a quarter had experienced homelessness and three-quarters had reported thinking about or attempting suicide.
“The program has always evolved, from day one, around the needs of the kids,” Cole says. “We actually just went out there and said let’s see if it makes a difference, and it grew over eight years.”
Balunu has received widespread anecdotal support. Reviews of varying scope have positively assessed its outcomes – largely based on the reports from Balunu and Cole. An analysis by Flinders University was provided to government but not to the public.
A 2015 review noted that while Balunu showed promise, it had lacked integration with the justice system.
“That’s a fair call and very accurate,” Cole says. “We definitely want to integrate our program more into the justice system, into the Department of Children and Families, and work closer with these agencies on how we collaborate and strengthen the kids.
“The reality of that is we’ve been so under-resourced for so long that trying to work with over 100 kids with three people is virtually impossible for anybody.”
Starting with a $10,000 grant from Rio Tinto, Balunu eventually received $400,000 a year in government funding.
Annual running costs were about $1.3m, but it helped 60 to 100 kids a year compared with the just six or seven that amount would cover to keep them incarcerated, Cole says.
The justice and social services sectors are optimistic about an $18.2m a year reform package announced by the NT government in February. It was reportedly the single largest investment into youth justice in the NT’s history and focused on youth diversion and prevention, rather that punitive responses.
Within the reforms was an invitation to non-governmental organisations – bolstered by the return of their CLP-slashed funding plus an extra $1.2m – to express interest in establishing boot camps and wilderness camps as non-custodial options, as long as they were evidence-based.
“It doesn’t work if it just happens to be out bush somewhere under a tree singing Kumbaya,” said the chief minister, Michael Gunner.
Jared Sharpe, the general manager of the Jesuit Social Services, says while military-style boot camps haven’t been shown to work, rehabilitative and therapeutic programs such as Balunu have shown results.
Youth programs and bail support are immediate priorities, Sharpe says, but bush camps offer vital intervention, particularly for Indigenous children.
“Just as we’ve never had a real dedicated investment in youth justice, we’ve never had an investment in Aboriginal justice programs,” he says. “The territory is still the only jurisdiction without an Aboriginal justice program.
“That’s the space programs like Balunu can fill.”
Cole says he will be applying for funding under the new reform package and would like to work with government services and other NGOs “to look at how we evolve what we’ve already created that works well and how do we it it into this space to ensure our success is developed on”.
“We’ve already been discussing ideas around how we evolve the program – kids who are in touch with the justice system and kids who are at risk of that. We’d almost be looking at two focus areas of prevention and rehabilitation.”
Cole’s biggest regret is that Balunu was unable to maintain consistent follow-ups with all the children who came on the camp. Some high-risk youths found themselves back on the wrong path, he says.
Sharpe agrees that a lack of follow-through has been a problem and case management must be built into any future programs.
“What you’re gaining from that camp is taking a young person away from a tumultuous home environment and putting them into a therapeutic space,” he says. “You’ve got to maximise that and help that young person go back to their home environment and keep those connections in place.”
Mark and Tash are two young people who have gained from their time at the camp and used what they’ve learned to stay on track. They stay in touch with mentors – albeit informally in the years since they attended camp – and want to do the same for others.
And Mark has since returned to the camp as a worker.
“That was a good experience, not only for me but for the kids as well,” he says. “I could show them: what Uncle David’s telling you guys is not bullshit. It’s real, there are people you can talk to.”
Adds Tash: “Going to the Balunu camp has shown us we can all be strong, that we can’t let the world and everything everyone says about us and our people tear us down, because we are what we make ourselves.”
* Names have been changed
Opening the eyes of First Nations youth
Globe and Mail – Justine Hunter
A culture camp for Heiltsuk youth in Bella Bella, B.C., is part of a transformation that has essentially eliminated youth suicide and boosted graduation rates,
Surrounded by hereditary chiefs wearing full regalia, Rory Housty looked underdressed in his T-shirt and ski jacket when he welcomed B.C. Premier Christy Clark and other dignitaries to his community recently for an important signing ceremony.
But the packed hall fell into a respectful silence when the young man delivered a prayer in the Heiltsuk tongue. The people in the world who can fluently speak the Heiltsuk-Oowekyala language would fill a small bus, and Mr. Housty, at 27, is one of the youngest of them.
Mr. Housty credits a local youth program, the Koeye culture camp, with anchoring him to his culture. It is a remarkable achievement that this exposure – about 20 years ago – could connect him to his remote community on the central coast of B.C., because he would spend most of the next 15 years far from home.
The camp, along with an array of spinoff programs, is run by the Qqs Projects Society, established by Larry Jorgenson. A white guy, an outsider, Mr. Jorgenson seemed to be on a bureaucratic career path before he visited Bella Bella 35 years ago. He was working in Alberta re-organizing the province’s mental health programs and had done similar work in Ontario. When he arrived on the coast, he found a community in crisis, enduring an average of one youth suicide every month. At the urging of the school principal, Mr. Jorgenson sold everything and moved to the isolated community, accessible only by air or sea.
“It was a negative space,” he recalled. Fishing jobs were disappearing and parents – scarred by their residential school experiences – were distrustful of the education system. Kids had to leave the community to attend high school, and 98 per cent of them failed to graduate.
Today, the Heiltsuk run their own school and the high school graduation rate is 80 per cent – well above the national average for a First Nations reserve. Those who have been through the Qqs programs are more likely to complete a postsecondary education, and they are emerging now as the cultural leaders of the community.
Funded mostly by environmental organizations and guided by the Heiltsuk leadership, Mr. Jorgenson began building an enterprising non-profit empire. What started with some boating trips with troubled youth expanded to a string of camps, a sawmill, a lodge, a cafe and a consulting agency. Scientists and field technicians now train students to conduct mountain goat and grizzly population surveys, which are then used to develop Heilstuk resource management plans. One group is now working on climate-change modelling.
Qqs – pronounced “kucks” – is the Heiltsuk word for “eyes,” because the program’s objective is to open the eyes of young people to their responsibility as stewards of the Heiltsuk environment and culture.
“It is not an accident that today’s cultural leaders are people who grew up in Qqs,” Mr. Jorgenson said. “Everything we do is culturally based. Our pillars are youth, culture and the environment. What we’ve tried to do is integrate western and traditional science.”
It has been a slow turnaround, but by instilling kids with the strength and resilience of their culture, the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella has experienced a cultural and economic revival. “The changes are huge. We now have a generation of young people who have university degrees, and they have come back to the community and they have kids and they love school – they want their children to succeed and compete in both worlds.”
There is a commitment from our young people to learn.
Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett
There are still youth at risk, but Mr. Jorgenson cannot recall the last youth suicide in this town of 1,400 people. “It’s been many years.” He deflects any credit, saying the change is the result of efforts by many individuals. But he says youth suicide is no longer an issue in Bella Bella.
Instead, members of the community – like Mr. Housty – are returning home with degrees in science, health and archeology – skills they can put to work here. They can sing the Heiltsuk songs of the grizzly bear and also produce the technical data to measure the state of its habitat.
At the camps in the forests on Campbell Island, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, Mr. Housty was taught what a generation had almost forgotten: How to live off the land and how to maintain protocol in the potlatch. Now he is a co-master of the potlatch ceremonies – an honour for such a young member of the community.
“The program gives you the strength you need to able to be away, and still belong,” Mr. Housty recalled in an interview, weeks after the Premier’s visit in January to mark the completion of an agreement to strictly limit old-growth logging within the vast section of B.C.’s mid-coast that is called the Great Bear Rainforest. “I had a sense of being connected to where our ancestors lived.”
At the Koeye camp, he studied the Heiltsuk culture and language through singing and dancing, and was introduced to his people’s traditional ways of resource management. Then, he moved to the city of Nanaimo when he was still in elementary school. “It was so difficult, living in the south. I was uprooted.”
Qqs Projects Society
While he was away, Mr. Housty studied anthropology and linguistics, and returned to live in Bella Bella in 2011, determined to throw himself into studying the language from the few elders who still hold the language. “It is a scary thought; we don’t have many fluent speakers left,” he said. “I’m working as hard as I can, trying to learn our language. We are losing the keepers of our language.”
Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said the Qqs programs have strengthened a generation of kids by helping them retain their cultural identity. “We have such a strong group of young people in our community now, and having that Qqs camp is one of the drivers.”
The Heiltsuk are determined to play a leading role in the stewardship of their traditional territories and many of the science-based Qqs programs emphasize those resource issues. But preserving their traditional language is also critical. “We hear it all the time from [other] communities, that their language is on the verge of extinction. To hear people like Rory speaking the language, it’s a lot of hope for the future,” she said. The number of Heiltsuk speakers is still very low, she said, but between the Bella Bella Community School and Qqs, it is no longer disappearing.
“It’s not as high as we’d like to see it, but the growth is there. There is a commitment from our young people to learn.”
Mr. Jorgenson’s tiny, chaotic office is attached to the well-stocked community library that overlooks Lama Pass. Despite the spectacular seaside view, he spends as little time as possible at a desk. During an interview in the library, he remained standing, eager to get out the door and do something more than just talk.
It was later, when he was tracked down by telephone, that he explained what has driven him throughout his 35 years of community work. “I love being out there. I’ve climbed every hill, every minute I get, I take off and do things. I love to explore.”
Helping children and youth develop that passion for the outdoors is his reward.
“To be with a child watching a Sandhill crane dance while we hide behind a rock – seeing that look in their eyes – it’s beyond description. It is so amazing to be able provide those opportunities. What greater gift do we have to give than awe and wonder?”