Outside Vancouver’s City Hall, youth clutching Spirit Bears lined up excitedly for cups stuffed with Oreo cheesecake at the “We All Turn 19” celebration for youth who’ve been through B.C.’s child-welfare system.
The party happened Friday afternoon under a grey sky on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations.
“We know that after turning 19, the supports just aren’t there,” said organizer Susan Russell-Csanyi in her welcoming speech, outside Vancouver’s City Hall.
“Our siblings and peers are heading into needless adverse outcomes because the [government policy] just isn’t there to support us — and we deserve that because every youth deserves to look forward to turning 19.”
Russell-Csanyi is an organizer with Fostering Change, a campaign which aims to improve outcomes for youth leaving government care. The community includes more than 130 advocates who are currently (or were formerly) in care, according to a recent letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan.
Anita Shen is also part of the Fostering Change community. They identify as a community organizer and volunteer.
“Many of us spent our 19th birthdays, not celebrating, but packing up our belongings into garbage bags and leaving all the safety and stability we have ever known,” Shen told the small — but spirited — crowd.
“This event is the 19th birthday that we deserve. We’ve got cake, we’ve got food, we’ve got gift bags, and we’ve got lots and lots of love and support and activities and community for all of us to enjoy today.
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“This event is a chance to celebrate youth, to see each other for our humanity and for our potential. Today is a day for our voices to be heard.”
This was the fourth annual 19th birthday celebration hosted by Fostering Change.
This year’s party featured the usual fare: cake, gift bags and a piñata. But there were also tongue-in-cheek activities like the “Social Safety Net Toss,” in which youth strained to toss balled up socks into a net from distances marked with signs describing typical barriers for youth transitioning out of care — things like paperwork, housing and a supportive adult.
“Together, we unite our hearts and our voices in the ask that no youth leave support until they have secured housing and financial supports — and price-indexed financial supports at that,” Russell-Csanyi said.
In 2019-20, 894 youth transitioned out of B.C.’s care when they turned 19 (including those on Youth Agreements), as previously reported by IndigiNews. Indigenous youth made up nearly half (47 per cent) of this group, given the colonial policies and systemic racism that has led to their gross overrepresentation in child-welfare systems across the country.
‘Super, super happy’
Fialka Jack-Flesh is Mowachaht and Nuu-chah-nulth. She says she comes “from a long line of chiefdom bloodline on [Vancouver Island], near Campbell River, up in Gold River.”
“On my 19th birthday, I got woken up and told, while I was eating breakfast, that if I didn’t put all my stuff in a garbage bag and [get] out the door by noon, they were going to call the cops on me,” she tells IndigiNews.
“I was in a group home at the time. They were told by my social workers that I had to be out.”
Jack-Flesh says she was then moved into housing “meant for people living with addictions and stuff,” despite having been “sober for a year at that point.”
Within a month, she says she was living “in the middle of the Downtown Eastside … in an SRO unit, and heavily addicted to drugs.”
“I tried getting supports from programs and stuff, and they were like, ‘Well, we have this bed, but someone more important than you is going to get it today.’”
Today, she says she’s been “clean and sober for the last six years, with no supports, with no help.” She says this collective birthday party helps make up for the one she never had.
“I loved it! It was so beautiful — the energy!” she says. “Being able to see a lot of familiar faces that I haven’t [seen] in a long time, and new faces that maybe we’ll see again next year, so [I’m] super super happy.”
‘I want to have that big voice’
Glugwe Walkus says this “uplifting” party shows other youth “they’re not alone.”
“My family’s from up-island,” says Walkus, who rocked a bright red Canucks jersey to the party. “We’re Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw — that’s where my dad’s side of the family’s from. My mom’s side is from Líl̓wat Nation.
“The reason why I wanted to be here, I guess, is to have an open voice for my niece and nephew that don’t have a voice right now because they’re stuck in — what my father called — prison,” says Walkus, who spent seven years bouncing in and out of care himself (as previously reported for The Discourse).
“They haven’t done anything wrong. They’re taken away from family and they don’t know who we are … It’s real difficult for youth in care, not having that family bond … I want to have that big voice for them.”
‘Awesome community out here to support you’
Sim Sidhu identifies as a Sikh Punjabi youth who grew up in Vancouver, often travelling back and forth between Canada and India.
“I have a lot of peers that definitely did not get to celebrate their 19th birthday, myself included,” she says. “Turning 19, I was more scared than ever … how am I going to have a stable house … [and] stable income? How am I going to have stability in life?”
Sidhu says she began advocating for her peers as part of the Fostering Change community a few years ago, after observing inequities in the system.
“All my Indigenous peers were getting mistreated,” she says. “There was this unfair, incomprehensive and un-universal support.”
In a July 7 letter to Premier Horgan, Fostering Change advocates called on the government to implement the following recommendations with respect to B.C.’s child-welfare system:
• An automatic enrollment into support upon aging out of government care, regardless of care status or time spent in care. Financial support should be flexible and cover housing, nutrition, and mental wellness supports. Youth who choose not to enroll when they first transition out of care should also have the option to opt-in at a later date.
• Provide for and financially support an enhanced range of trauma-informed and culturally appropriate mental health and substance use services for young people transitioning from care into adulthood, consistent with recommendation #6 from A Parent’s Duty [a report by B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, published in December].
• Extend the access to cultural programs, cultural healing, and wellness programs, currently supported through the AYA Program, indefinitely.
• Permanently implement the expanded program eligibility and the decreased hours of participation required per week, which were implemented as pandemic measures within the AYA Program. This aligns with MCFD’s objective to increase uptake of the post-majority support offered through the AYA Program.
• Specific units in housing dedicated to youth transitions from all statuses of government care.
Sidhu says she’s proud of the work she and her peers have done through Fostering Change to ensure government supports are expanded. Since 2015, the organization has also fought to prevent youth homelessness and ensure the extension of supports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many at the party, Sidhu wants those coming up in the system to feel supported.
“I don’t really see many multicultural youth … as part of our youth-in-care group. I don’t see them getting the help they need because of cultural barriers with their families,” she says.
“There is this very awesome community out here to support you, to guide you, to give you tools and resources — which I felt like I didn’t have at the time,” Sidhu says.
“I want to make sure other youth get it now.”
Brielle Morgan is a settler living on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. She strives to work in solidarity with her Indigenous colleagues and uphold trauma-informed practices. See examples of her past reporting on the child-welfare system here and here.
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