By Lise Betteridge, MSW, RSW

On a hot summer day this past June, I wandered the cool marble floors and concrete galleries of Montreal’s Contemporary Arts Museum, feeling overwhelmed by a powerful exhibition of the works of Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore, titled Facing the Monumental. The diverse collection, on loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario, presented an overview of Belmore’s artistic vision to date, including sculptures, installations, photography and video.

One video, called Vigil (Paul Wong, 2010), was literally and figuratively stunning. It was a performance art recording of Belmore commemorating the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women who have disappeared from the streets of Vancouver. It featured a barefoot Belmore wearing a long, crimson dress, scrubbing the pavement in the infamous Downtown Eastside.

As I faced this haunting evocation of trauma, I was reminded of a recent symposium that I had attended as part of the Council on Licensure, Enforcement & Regulation (CLEAR) International Conference in Vancouver. The CLEAR Symposium was planned around the theme of “Cultural Awareness: Valuing Indigenous and Minority Populations in Professional Regulation.” It challenged regulators to face a succinct question with monumental implications: How does reconciliation apply to professional regulation?

Protection of the public interest is the fundamental reason for regulation. Indeed, the ongoing mandate of the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers is to protect the public interest. As societal expectations change, however, regulators are interpreting their public interest mandate more broadly. The CLEAR Symposium presented international regulators with the opportunity to discuss what reconciliation might mean in the regulatory context, including how regulators might move beyond a commitment to cultural sensitivity and learning towards cultural humility and cultural safety. The shift might include, for example, an analysis and acknowledgement of power imbalances as well as reflection on the ideals of self-determination and decolonization.

This progression from knowledge and awareness to analysis and action was the subject of the keynote address, “Why Action Matters When it Comes to Reconciliation,” at the College’s 2019 Annual Meeting and Education Day. Keynote Speaker Dr. Jeffrey Ansloos explored the ways in which the College might take up the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. As Dr. Ansloos noted, the Commission’s calls to action are professionally relevant to the College, as social workers and social service workers work in so many of the areas addressed by the calls to action, particularly child welfare.

I encourage all members of the College to watch the keynote address presented by Dr. Ansloos at our Annual Meeting and Education Day — an edited version of the livestreamed address is available on the College website and our video channel on YouTube. Dr. Ansloos issued his own call to action during the keynote, calling upon College members to read the executive summary of the Commission’s report; the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As the College heads into discussions this winter regarding our 2020-2023 strategic priorities, it is inspiring to see how reconciliation has begun to inform the strategic planning of other Canadian regulators, and how the AMED keynote has generated dialogue and a desire to move forward among members of our own Council. I believe there is consensus within the regulatory community that this is an area in which regulators have lagged behind the rest of Canada.

In the past, regulators have struggled with the position of reconciliation within the framework of their regulatory mandate, and in the statutes of their governing legislation. Some regulators may have believed that this issue lies outside the immediate scope of their mandate. Following the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, it has become clear that the time to examine our regulatory practice is now.

That said, it behooves us within the regulatory community to avoid imposing our own frameworks and begin instead with truly listening to the experiences, ideas and needs of Indigenous people and communities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation — and reconciliation, as the Commission noted, is an ongoing individual and collective process.

As social workers and social service workers, we know that official reports are important to our understanding and analysis of professional issues. We also understand (particularly through the practice of cultural humility) that connecting on a human level through listening and observing can help inform and engage us.

Rebecca Belmore has said that ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples must be addressed; her art is meant to spark a reaction, engage us emotionally, and create spaces for the public to be affected by her work. It certainly helped me to consider the question of regulators and reconciliation, and to look forward, as College Registrar and CEO, to facing the monumental.

Lise Betteridge, MSW, RSW
Registrar and CEO