Culture Blog

Building Trust: Relationships at the Center of Social Work Practices

Building Trust: Relationships at the Center of Social Work Practices

Mar 8, 2024
Category: General 

Social Work Week is March 10 – 16 this year, an important time to appreciate the various essential services social workers provide. Whether it is a family supporting someone with complex needs, a person receiving addiction support, a homeless individual, or a woman escaping an abusive relationship, social workers help to improve the lives of so many.

Joni Conlon is the Director of Child Safety at CSFS, a matrilineal member of Tsay Keh Dene who sits with the Bear. Her father is from Treaty 6 Territory, connected to Muskeg Lake.

Over the years, Joni has centered her work on Indigenous social work practices with the aim of building healthier communities. In this article, Joni shares how she practices differently as a social worker, front-loading prevention services for children and families, and why an empowerment-oriented approach is important in keeping families together.

The capacity to reflect is to think about what has happened and learn from the process. Social work is an exciting and dynamic profession where no day or no conversation is the same, each will require different approaches and styles, some may work well and some may not.


What does social work mean?

Being a social worker means being a part of the solution and having a curiosity for learning. The heart of good social work practice is building strong connections that are based on love, respect, care, and empathy for the people you serve.

From a young age, I have always wanted to work in the community as a helper to decolonize social work practices. Due to our colonial history and the 60’s scoop, social workers aren’t being framed as being helpful and are often associated with trauma, loss of kinship and family connections.

When I started exploring my career path, I knew that I wanted to see a better life for Indigenous people, and passionately wanted to be part of our healing. That meant I had to actively challenge knowledge systems and take an innovative angle on social work focusing on the cultural, spiritual, and land rights of Indigenous Peoples.


What was your experience studying social work in an academic environment?

I learned a lot from both my Bachelors and my Master’s program. I was always focused on the ‘why?’. For example, why Indigenous people overrepresented in the child welfare and the criminal justice system? Why we are overrepresented with poverty? Through my learning, I kept reinforcing through research that there was a correlation.

Early on in my career, I was involved in a really unique project in Burns Lake, the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) education and prevention program. I had incredible social workers who taught me culturally sound practices; reflective and reflexive practices. I watched them, and was inspired by how dedicated they were to creating relationships based on respect and care.

Reflective practices help us as social workers to learn about ourselves, and our work. Being reflective allows us to challenge assumptions, cultural biases or behaviours when we support individuals or communities. Being reflexive is the capacity to change in the moment and to understand how our own behaviours sometimes plays into practices that might marginalize of exclude certain individuals. It's these these intangible soft skills learned on the land that have such a pivotal impact on sound social work practice. Experiences that I would not have learned if I just stuck to learning in the classroom.


Joan Conlon during the CSFS All Staff Potlatch training (2023)


How does your passion for front load prevention tie into your position as the Director of Child Safety?

The core of good social work is front loading prevention services. This means that we put as many services as early as we can, after a case is opened, in order to address the worry, and families stay connected. The very last thing we ever want to see is children leaving their communities, because staying connected is important to their well-being, identity and pride.

For example, when we see that a family is stressed because they don’t have basic necessities like food, adequate shelter, transportation or running water. Our role as social workers is to figure out the paths we need to take to make sure children remain with community, their siblings, and culture is at the forefront. From a child safety perspective, keeping children in the centre of decision-making is of utmost importance.


Do community Elders and leaders play a vital role in shaping prevention services?

Back in the day, it was matriarchs in communities that could have the tough conversations because they loved us and cared for us. It is absolutely necessary that we take our direction, and we are humble to listen when our matriarchs speak. It is important to be on the land and with your matriarchs.

In situations where difficult decisions have to be made with families, it has been the matriarchs that have had to make the decision. That might mean families step in and provide the additional support to the parents, while they get back on their feet.

Something I remember from one of the matriarchs is the principle – u’guzli - going slow, and embedding that in your practice. So, it means when I go in to work with a family that is high stress or volatile, it is a reminder to tread softly, go slowly. In doing so, you are able to ask the right questions and get the right information to make informed decisions.


What advice would you give to social workers who desire work with indigenous communities or currently work with communities?

The first thing is focus on building a relationship based on trust, respect and understanding – whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous. Being an ally is also important, and I think we sometimes don’t talk about it enough. However, positioning yourself is very vital in helping people. For example, I am Sekani but not from the 11-member Nations that CSFS serves. In this case, I am a learner. I have to be humble enough to know when to stay silent and listen to the people.

Understanding your identity, understanding your own position in the world, being willing to be humble so you can continue as a lifelong learner are ways to support and truly help communities. We are all reliant on one another, interdependent, and that’s what makes our cultures so rich.





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Last modified: Wednesday 03-Apr-24 12:36:28 PDT