Coming Home to Help: Hailey Bird Matheson Studies Indigenous Social Work in Her Home Territory
Driven back to school by a desire to become a counsellor for Indigenous people, Hailey Bird Matheson is working towards a Masters of Social work at the University of Manitoba. A Peguis First Nation member, she recently moved to Winnipeg, on her community's traditional territory, after growing up in BC. Her program is intended to be by and for Indigenous people, a welcome change.
“I really struggled in my previous social work education, because I felt like it wasn't for Indigenous people. They talked about us a lot, but not like some of us were in the room and they talked about us in this really negative way,” she recalls. What drove her back to school was a desire to become a counsellor for other Indigenous people, something she would need a Masters of Social Work to do. “I knew I had to do it, and I couldn't do it in a totally Western institution again,” she recalls.
Growing up, negative experiences with social workers shaped her perceptions of the profession. A victim services worker she met at the age of 16 changed that. “After I met with her and I realized how important she was to my life, I realized that that was something that I felt like I could do for other people,” she remembers.
Bird-Matheson tends to work with Indigenous youth and Indigenous people generally, people with issues around substance use, and issues of traditional medicines and sense of belonging. “Social work lets me hop in and out of spaces in that way, and be able to decide how I can best help people and it doesn't always have to be the same thing or be the same way,” she relays.
She wasn’t always strong in school, struggling in high school with drug use, grief and trauma. “A lot of my actions weren't focused on my future, they were focused on just trying to get myself through every day,” she recalls. Education wasn’t her top priority and she didn’t know how it could lead her away from some of those challenges.
In her late teens, Bird Matheson started thinking about how she could change her circumstances and looking at social work programs for people with addictions, given her struggles. She received funding to go to UBC but struggled not knowing many people in such a big city. The Indigenous Students Center helped her get through what was often a traumatic educational experience.
In the classroom, she gained a new perspective about what was taking place outside the classroom and in her own life. “I learned a lot of things at school, about systems, laws, and things that I didn't realize made life more difficult for Indigenous people. I had seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of things, but I didn't realize that a lot of those things were intentional, and because of the way that Canada was colonized and created,” she recounts.
“I do appreciate university for giving me a broader idea of that stuff. But I also think that that by no means is the only way or the best way to get an education because I think I learned just as much if not more about being like a social worker, or rather a helper, from community settings in the Downtown Eastside and from elders and knowledge keepers,” she continues, thinking about what she learned about care for self and others.
While she’s learned from her experiences, good and difficult, the message she wishes she could give her younger self would be, “You don't have to be just one thing. You don't have to pick a job or a character trait or like anything like that. You can be a scientist and an artist… you can be all of these different things at once… I can choose something and then change my mind and that doesn't mean that I did something wrong.”
Her advice for youth considering going to post secondary is to try it out, but that it’s okay to stop or take a break or to learn differently, in community with elders. Going to school opened doors for her but it’s something she suggests planning for in terms of thinking about what you need to feel good, safe and taken care of and also how to ask for help.
Planning for those things is important because pursuing higher education can be difficult. “I don't think that we talk about how much of a struggle, but also a success going to school is. We downplay it a lot. But it's really, really hard. It's extra hard, especially if you're Indigenous, because a lot of those systems weren't made for us and explicitly, didn't let us in for a really long time. Don't undermine how hard it is. You're doing a really great job even just to get to the place that you're thinking about it,” she encourages.
Finding balance was something she worked towards and that looked like reaching out to an Indigenous professor about how hard things were. The professor took her to the Musqueam garden and connected her with knowledge keepers that worked there, a place she ended up doing an internship. That’s where she learned about growing and harvesting medicines and the experience grounded her, reminding her that school isn’t everything. Going to sweats, Western counselling and finding community at friendship centers were also helpful.
Now away from Vancouver where she found that assistance, being on her territory and her responsibility to it and her ancestors inspire her. The joy of Indigenous youth engaging in their culture and doing cultural work inspires her, too. “There's so much amazing stuff that's going on and sometimes it's easy to forget about that when you read all these bad things on the news, but our communities are doing some awesome stuff and I want to be a part of it,” she beams.
When she first started school to become a social worker, she didn’t feel like she belonged in the Western institution she attended. After receiving her training, she’s been able to help Indigenous young people with their own struggles around belonging. Working towards her Master’s Degree, she’s looking forward to the impact she’s going to make. Grounded in the teachings from a Musqueam garden, now rooted in her territory, she's growing through her higher education and into new ways of helping in community.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.