(by Nuelle Novik, Past President, ASWNC)
Professional Social Workers in the North are found in many settings. Many are employed by Regional Health and Social Service Boards. An increasing number of social workers are employed by non-profit agencies, which are present in many communities. There are a small number of social workers in private practice and consulting endeavors. There are also some social workers employed in the educational field.
Areas of practice include child protection, adoption, services to the aged and handicapped, alcohol and drug counseling, income support, child and family therapies, mental health services, correctional services and social planning. There are few specialists – most social workers are called upon to provide a wide spectrum of services.The profession of Social Workers is founded on humanitarian and egalitarian ideals. Social Workers believe in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being and are committed to the values of acceptance, self-determination and respect of individually. They believe in the obligation of all people, individually and collectively, to provide resources, services and opportunities for the overall benefit of humanity. The culture of individuals, families, groups, communities and nations has to be respected without prejudice.
Social Workers are dedicated to the welfare and self-realization of human beings; to the development and disciplined use of scientific knowledge regarding human and societal behaviors; to the development of resources to meet individual, group, national and international needs and aspirations; and to the achievement of social justice for all.
Social Workers across Northern Canada have been working together to form a professional association since 1974. Although the Yukon and Northwest Territories Association of Social Workers, as it was known at that time, was officially connected with CASW, attempts to maintain initial organizational efforts were unsuccessful. The years that followed saw a number of social workers dedicate time and energy in efforts to revive and maintain the Association in some form. Ultimately, however, various factors contributed to these efforts not reaching fruition.
In 1998, Lia Ruttan; a social worker from Fort Smith; reviewed documentation in an effort to identify recurring obstacles to the success of efforts to reestablish the Association. The obstacles that were identified included:
- Constraints of distance and geography
- The availability of insufficient financial support;
- A Small Membership base;
- A consistently high turnover of social workers in Northern Communities;
- A high turnover of original Association board Members;
- An inability to agree on Association membership requirements;
- Vast differences in the educational and experimental backgrounds of Northern social work practitioners;
- The division of the Northwest Territories and the creation of Nunavut;
- Perception of social workers as para-professionals as opposed to professionals;
- Lack of strong social work presence within the Department of health and Social Services;
- Dilemmas in handling Complaints regarding ethical conduct;
- A dilution of the role of social work education;and
- A backlash due to past social work decisions with Northern and Aboriginal populations.
The Association of Social Workers in Northern Canada has been the most recent addition to the network of provincial associations that make up membership in CASW. The Interim Membership Agreement, which we signed with CASW in March of 1999 provides Northern social workers with:
- Copies of all national publications;
- Access to professional liability insurance;and
- The opportunity to add their voice to the larger body of their colleagues across their nation.
According to this Interim Agreement, ASWNC was required to accomplish the following within a three-year period:
- Adopt a new Constitution and Bylaws;
- Develop and maintain a functioning organizational structure; and
- Maintain a stable membership base.
In addition to the terms of the Interim Membership Agreement with CASW, the Board of ASWNC has been working to address a number of additional recommendations that were made in 1998 by Lia Ruttan.These recommendations were based upon previous attempts to establish and maintain a professional association of social workers in Northern Canada,and include the following:
- Deal with membership question;
- Reach out to workers in non-government settings;
- Ensure continuity;
- Ensure Board makeup is representative;
- Make use of technology to improve communication;
- Serve as a venue for feedback on government policy and initiatives;
- Be part of and support efforts at community healing and acknowledge past social work role;
- Ensure mechanism for dealing with ethical issues;
- Raise profile of the field;
- Advocate for similar benefits as those of nurses for social workers;
- Seek solutions to funding dilemmas
- Enhance training and educational opportunities;
- Encourage a strong focus on social work education; and
- Consider pros and cons of collaborative arrangements with other professional organizations
Currently, ASWNC has worked to incorporate the above-noted recommendations. What follows is the actual list of recommendations with their original rationale as was identified in the research report released by Ruttan un 1998. The italicized portions that follow indicate the manner in which ASWNC is currently addressing the identified challenges.
Deal With membership question
The continuing debate regarding educational and other requirements for membership undermines efforts to work together. While the realities of social work delivery are different in the North, skills in social work methods and a belief in the values of the profession are essential for members.Membership requirements or categories of membership need to be re-addressed and resolved fairly early in the reorganization process.
Issues surrounding requirements for membership in the Association were addressed directly at the 1999 AGM of the Association. Although the ensuing debate was lengthy and intense, membership agreed upon the categories of membership that currently form the core of the new Constitution and Bylaws.This Constitution and Bylaws was upheld at the 2000 AGM of the Association.
Reach out to workers in non-government settings
Social workers are increasingly being employed in non-government agencies,local governments and Aboriginal organizations. In order to ensure a vital organization, and to serve as a venue to deal with professional isolation and worker concerns, the Association must reach out to these workers as well as those who work in more traditional government social work settings.
This is an issue that the Association of Social Workers in Northern Canada is acutely aware of. Currently, four of the ten members of the ASWNC Board do not work directly within Departments of Health and Social Services.
Efforts need to be made to ensure ownership, involvement, and prioritization of the concerns of aboriginal and long-term northerners. If the lead continues to be taken by new social workers from the south, workers who eventually return to the south, reorganization efforts will likely fail again.
The bulk of the current Board of ASWNC has been in place since 1998. These Board members were reelected in 1999 for another two-year term, and thecurrent Board members were elected to three-year terms. Stipulations have been built into the Constitution and Bylaws in order to ensure continuity at this level.
Ensure Board makeup is representative
Board membership that was not completely representative of the social work profession in Northern Canada was a factor in the failure of Association efforts in the past.
ASWNC remains involved in an ongoing membership recruitment drive across thevarious social work sectors in Northern Canada. Appropriate succession planning will help to ensure that future Boards of ASWNC is truly representative of the profession of social work as a whole.
Make use of technology to improve communication
In the time period since the Association last dissolved in 1990, access to computers, fax, e-mail, and the Internet has improved in both government and non-government settings. Increased access opens up opportunities for improved communication and shared work on ongoing projects. While not the same as inperson contact, these mediums can certainly improve joint efforts compared to what was available during the past efforts. Use of this technology can also bridge communication gaps between government and non-government workers who are not served by already existing e-mail and inter-organizational communication links.
Two years ago, two Board members engaged in introductory training regarding the maintenance of web sites. Last year, the Board of ASWNC made the decision to go ahead and build a web site. The Association site is currently available at www.socialworknorth.com
Serve as a venue for feedback on government policy and initiatives
This is an important role for the Association and one where members indicate they currently feel constrained due to requirements of their employment or concern regarding employers¡¯ reactions if their opinions differ. Workers are very interested in these issues, have a great deal of expertise, and would welcome a group format and a larger voice to enhance opportunities to influence policy.The ASWNC web site includes a chat room option. It is believed that this will greatly enhance opportunities for communication amongst Northern social workers. In addition, ASWNC has continued to strive to actively participate in various Northern policy committees and workshops. The current organizational structure of ASWNC encourages the development of special working committees that include both Board Members and Association members at large.
Be part of and support efforts at community healing and acknowledge past social work role
It is essential that the Association and social workers be part of healing processes occurring in Aboriginal communities. The Association must listen to what communities need and be part of new solutions to deal with child welfare and family healing needs.
ASWNC remains actively engaged and committed to this process.
Ensure mechanism for dealing with ethical issues
The Association needs to address how this function can be dealt with given the constraints of small membership and limited finances. At the same time, efforts need to be made to continue to raise the importance of ethical standards and continue the education of workers on this issue. This focus is particularly
important in light of changing employment settings and traditional work functions being taken on by people who, while they may have related training, did not receive a social work education.
ASWNC is committed to continuing to lobby government in regards to a need for Social Work Legislation. ASWNC has begun the process of exploring regulation options in the event that Legislation is passed. Currently, ASWNC is supervising a BSW Practicum student who is conducting research into options around the regulation of Social Work practice.
Raise profile of field
It is imperative that the profile, roles, methods and aims of the profession be highlighted. There is a need to clearly articulate the field of social work and the efforts of social workers in the North.The profession is facing inaccurateperceptions from the general public, educational institutions, Aboriginal organizations and government departments. Some of this is related to stereotypes of social workers as ¥Ácheque writers. or ¥Ábaby snatchers., some to backlash from the results of placing Aboriginal children in non-Aboriginal foster care and adoptive homes, and some to employers and educational institutions for not truly understanding social work as a professional field. As well, social workers often spend a great deal of time and energy assisting others while not bothering to promote and stand up for their own work.This issue has consistently been highlighted by the membership of the Associationas an immediate priority. ASWNC is currently engaged in, and committed to aprocess of the promotion of the profession of Social Work in Northern Canada.
Advocate for similar benefits as those of nurses for social workers
Currently social workers are expressing some resentment at the benefits nurses receive which they do not. As efforts to cross train nurses to perform some duties that have traditionally been those of social workers begin to occur, tensions over these issues could continue to grow causing unproductive morale issues and difficulty in productive working relationships. This may be a difficult area to deal with due to funding constraints.
ASWNC has made an effort to encourage social work and Association representation on committees and at various meetings that may hold the potential to address such issues. These efforts will continue.
Seek solutions to funding dilemmas
While the organization can provide the basic functions with funds from dues, inperson meetings or workshops will require additional funds due to the high cost of travel. The new Board will need to look for opportunities for fund raising and submit funding proposals to any relevant funding sources whenever and wherever possible.
ASWNC remains committed to this process.
Enhance training and education opportunities
By working together, sharing resources, informing others and opening up training to workers from outside the particular agency or department, training opportunities can be better taken advantage of. All too often a workshop or course is offered without letting all workers in the community or region know about the opportunity. The Association can serve to encourage greater communication and cooperation in this area.
ASWNC has provided continuing education and training opportunities at all three Annual General Meetings that have been held since it was last resurrected. Inaddition, the Association newsletter and web site will serve as a venue for ensuring communication of training opportunities as they occur.
Encourage a strong focus on social work education
The Board should continue to advocate for the consistent delivery of strong, Northern social work programs at the Northern educational institutions.Promotion of the value of social work as a profession that already encompasses many of the practice and population sub-fields that are currently being developed as certificate programs needs to occur. As well, if the profession is to continue its development in the North, continued educational opportunities are essential.
Representatives from the ASWNC serve on College Social Work Program Advisory Committees across Northern Canada. This support will continue.
Consider pros and cons of collaborative arrangements with other professional organizations
There may be benefits of joint association or joint efforts on some issues and activities that should be considered and discussed by the new Board. Benefits may relate to cost efficiencies or common concerns.
This approach has been explored by ASWNC at length. Although efforts will continue in this regard, it is disheartening to have recently heard that the Health Care Association of the NWT, one of the associations that ASWNC has been talking to, has recently folded. This serves as evidence that most professional associations in Northern Canada are experiencing similar challenges.