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Saskatoon Indigenous outreach program focuses on cultural connections

Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) Chief Mark Arcand wants to expand Saweyihtotan, a “by Indigenous, for Indigenous” outreach program.

It focuses on using cultural connections to establish trust with clients — whom Saweyihtotan staff refer to as “relatives.”

“We don’t want to put a stigmatism on them of clients or patients. There are relatives. They belong to somebody’s family, their mother, their father, their uncle, sister, whatever,” Arcand said.

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The Saskatoon Tribal Council started the program in November as a response to the City of Saskatoon closing the City Centre Inn and Suites last July and displacing nearly 150 people in the process.

In the five months since, the program has interacted with nearly 500 people and helped house almost 70 — not bad for a group with about a dozen staff members.

Arcand said the language and attitude frontline workers use is one reason for their success.

Project coordinator Saraih-Dawn Matthews told Global News support staff mainly deal with mental health and addictions issues but build trust using their shared culture. To help, they all carry smudging kits with them.

“We get calls saying, ‘Can you come and drum with us from people that are on the street?’” she said.

She added the focus was on bringing Indigenous people’s culture to them.

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“If I wanted to go to a church service, I could go pretty much anywhere, any day of the week at any time and access a church service. But if you want to connect with your culture and be able to smudge or to connect with an elder, those services aren’t as readily available.”

A 2018 study from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a think tank, found 86 per cent of homeless people in Saskatoon are Indigenous.

Arcand said there was a gap between the government social support programs and the people who needed access to them.

“There were people falling through the cracks,” he said.

“And to us as First Nations, people were not being accountable back to our First Nations communities and to our leaders.”

Arcand explained Seweyihtotan staff will visit relatives, and not the other way around, to ensure they can access services.

They also respond to calls from Saskatoon police and the fire department.

“When they get those (disturbance) calls, (police and firefighters) now can call our outreach team and we will go and we will work with those relatives, because a lot of the time it’s you know, they need somewhere to go.”

Matthews also said staff keep in touch with relatives as they go through the social services system.

“We just we stay with them for as long as they need us to,” she said.

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A veteran front-line workers says the program filled plays a vital role in the city.

Their impact has actually been extremely instrumental,” said Priscilla Johnstone, Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP Homelessness Plan Manager.

“The outreach perspective and the supports that they’ve been they’ve been able to support after hours has just been tremendous. It’s been amazing.”

Johnstone said the program filling in the gaps where individuals aren’t connected to services.

Saweyihtotan provides mobile services and recently launched a transitional housing centre with four rooms.

Arcand is hoping to grow it even further, for the program to move beyond it’s current purview to become a more established organization in the city.

On Monday he asked a city committee for $100,000, part of the $700,000 goal needed to continue and expand the program.

The province announced $350,000 in support at the end of March.

“A relative is anybody that needs help. It doesn’t matter if they’re First Nations, Metis, non-Indigenous, a newcomer — it doesn’t matter. People need help,” he said.

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