Every day for more than a month, Sonja Hathaway sat with her newborn baby Amella in the hospital, speaking to the infant in her Dene language.
Despite the feelings of being watched, Sonja and her husband Philip diligently spent time at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the Victoria General Hospital to feed and care for their daughter.
While Amella was in the NICU, the Hathaways stayed at Jeneece Place, a home for families to live while receiving medical care in “Victoria.” Sonja was brought to the city at the end of February by ambulance from “Campbell River” because of health complications.
When Amella was born on March 11, she was almost two months premature and weighed only three pounds at birth.
“I call her my thumbelina,” Sonja says lovingly.
Then, on Monday, Sonja and Philip arrived at the NICU to visit with their daughter and were met by police. They knew right away — the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) was there to apprehend Amella.
Prior to her apprehension, Amella spent the entirety of her short life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) while her parents stayed at Jeneece Place. Afterwards, Sonja and Philip packed up all of their prepared baby clothes, blankets and supplies. Submitted photo
On Tuesday, the morning after the apprehension, feeling helpless, the Indigenous couple went to the B.C legislature to try to find answers. As she sat on a tarp on the lawn, wrapped in blankets, the new mother was heartbroken. Sonja said she was concerned that her premature baby was being given formula instead of her breast milk.
“I had milk all ready to go first thing this morning, ” she said. “They are taking away having a motherhood with her …. They are taking that away from me, and it hurts me so much.”
Nowhere to go
The couple was featured in the news late last year for crafting their own boat to live on, after years of living unhoused. They worry that MCFD used that story against them.
Sonja also went to MCFD during her pregnancy to access resources in order to plan for the arrival of the baby and find proper housing but believes the social workers were covertly working against her the entire time.
“They brought her gift cards and coffee. Pretended to be there as help and friends. Little did Sonja know they were building a case to use against her,” the family explains on a website they created to raise awareness about their situation.
“They had a devious and frankly outrageous plan to wait months to strip her from her child.”
After Amella was born, the couple was then “forced” to sign a safety plan by MCFD, according to Philip. He said they were denied the chance to have the plan reviewed by a lawyer.
Philip said the couple has been on a waiting list for shelter with BC Housing for the past three years. They have also tried to secure housing through the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, the Aboriginal Homeless Prevention Society, John Howard Society, and the Vancouver Island Society of Saint Vincent De Paul.
On April 14, they were given an ultimatum by MCFD — Sonja must move to the Aboriginal Mother’s Centre Society (AMCS), close to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and separate from her husband, or face the removal of her daughter.
“They came in on Friday saying that they want me and my wife to separate and [for her] to move to a transition house in East Vancouver, where she is not allowed to leave the building with the child,” Philip said. “I would have no access during that entire time.”
Sonja said she doesn’t know anyone in “Vancouver” and that she wouldn’t have any support, nor would she feel safe there. So she declined this demand, and days later, her daughter was taken from her.
IndigiNews reached out to BC Housing for comment but did not receive a response. IndigiNews also reached out to the AMCS, which was unable to comment on any information that would be confidential in nature.
Since Amella was taken, her parents have only been allowed to visit their baby when a social worker approves it, at the MCFD office in “Esquimalt.” Upon arriving there on Tuesday, Sonja and Philip were informed that they weren’t allowed to bring any support people with them to see Amella, including their two postpartum doulas who drove them there.
After seeing baby Amella, the doulas brought the couple back to the B.C legislature, where they spent the night on the lawn. Sonja expressed concern that she may end up with an infection, like mastitis, from not being able to nurse her baby.
After some worrying, MCFD eventually allowed Sonja to visit Amella once a day to breastfeed, as per their own policy.
In 2018, MCFD changed its breastfeeding policy after the B.C. Supreme Court heard a case of a three day old Huu-ay-aht infant who was apprehended from their mother.
The Huu-ay-ahy Nation argued that the mother wasn’t given sufficient time to bond with and breastfeed her baby before the child was apprehended. The court ruled that the ministry must ensure that the mother has daily access to her baby.
A statement from an MCFD spokesperson said “we recognize the significance of breastfeeding and support breastfeeding for mothers and infants. When working with mothers who are breastfeeding, MCFD works with the mother to ensure plans are in place to meet her and her baby’s needs.”
Failed by the system
On Wednesday, during a subsequent visit to drop off milk and visit with Amella, Sonja and Philip were met by police — this time, the parents learned they are being separated by a MCFD-imposed protection order which now must go to the hearing stage and will be decided on this week.
To add to the stress, Philip said he observed his baby was overheating and wrapped in too many blankets. He said her diaper was too tight, overflowing with urine and feces, and she was wearing the same outfit as the previous day — leading him to question the quality of care she was receiving from the people who apprehended her.
The social worker told him she had a rough night, he said.
Sonja with her daughter Amella in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Submitted photo
MCFD Minister Mitzi Dean explained in a statement to IndigiNews that the ministry cannot remove a child for reasons of lack of housing and poverty alone — but that legally there must be a protection concern to bring the child into “care.”
“My ministry works every day to keep children safe with their families and connected to their culture and communities, whenever possible, as we all agree this leads to the best outcomes for children.”
According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Indigenous peoples shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.
For Sonja, she wonders why the system has failed her so direly — and all she wants is to be reunited with her daughter.
She misses her baby, and also worries about her not being able to pass on her Dene language and other important teachings.
“I talk to my daughter every day in my language, in Dene, so that she learns as she grows,” said Sonja. “And now, if I don’t talk to her, how is she going to learn?”
In the meantime, she’s launched a petition directed at Premier David Eby as she tries to get Amella back from the province. It now has nearly 1,000 signatures.
“It’s our baby. Not some dog you give away to someone else. I am not a breeder for entitled people,” she wrote on the petition page.
“I am a good mother and my husband is a good father. We desperately need your help to not allow the B.C. government to destroy another family. To steal yet another First Nation child because they can get away with it in silence.
“Do not allow them [to] continue the cycle of generational trauma.”
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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors
During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.
The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.
It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.
The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more.
Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).
Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.
Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.
“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.
“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”
Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau
As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience.
“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.
Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.
“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.
“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”
Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.
“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.
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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect
Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.
The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves.
So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops.
“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”
Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.
In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.
“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.
But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed.
At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.
“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.
Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.
He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.
In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.
“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.
A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached.
“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.
This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”
Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.
“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.
He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process.
“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.
Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.
Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.
“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.
“Honestly, it could save someone.”
The post For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect appeared first on IndigiNews.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve.
The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples.
The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.
The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door.
The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish).
On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.
Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.
The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse.
After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place.
General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.
The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.
Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.
“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.”
Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.
A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.
Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.
Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS.
“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.
Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.
The post Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’ appeared first on IndigiNews.
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