CASW and the North - Liz McLeod

I was privileged to serve as CASW Director for Manitoba from 1997 to 2002, during which time I had many wonderful experiences, including meeting colleagues from Canada as well as other countries at various events.

One highlight of Board service was the opportunity to attend the annual general meeting and conference of the Association of Social Workers of Northern Canada (ASWNC) in Yellowknife in October 2001. The CASW Board members were excited to travel to the North and welcome our colleagues into the national association, as well as to learn about social work practice in remote and unique settings.

Travel to Yellowknife was an experience in itself for many attendees. My flight stopped in Rankin Inlet, where we all disembarked and waited for the cargo to be unloaded for that community. When we boarded, the plane needed to be de-iced before take-off, as a blizzard was starting. An employee in a snowsuit sprayed liquid on the plane from what looked like a car wash wand, and we hoped he was good at covering the plane completely, without missing a spot! In fact, prior to boarding in Winnipeg, all the passengers had been required to accept that the flight might not leave Rankin Inlet, and that we would be responsible for our own accommodation in that event. Luckily this was not necessary, and we landed in Yellowknife as scheduled.

My first impression of Yellowknife was of beautiful lights in a navy blue night sky. The landscape is rugged – trees and rocks set around Great Slave Lake at the edge of downtown, where by day you can see many quaint fishing shanties and boats with folk art decorations. However, I think most impressive of all was the Legislature for the North West Territories, where we were treated to an amazing banquet of traditional and modern fare, including Artic char, caribou, and moose. The food was delicious, and the program and entertainment were professional. We also heard some moving stories about social work practice in the North and met some of the pioneers in the field. Listening to their stories of creativity in acquiring resources, of commitment to the clients and families served, and of their dedication to communities made us all proud to be part of the social work profession.

The CASW group was quartered in a lovely apartment hotel complex with a shared living room and kitchen, two bedrooms and bathrooms. The cost was surprisingly reasonable, and we doubled up to take advantage of the space and savings. My “roommate” was CASW Executive Director Eugenia Moreno. I am sure sharing with me was memorable or Eugenia, as I accidentally locked myself out and was forced to knock repeatedly during the wee hours of the morning to get back in (Eugenia was her usual gracious self).

The ASWNC members were well organized, and the meeting and conference went off without a hitch. An extra level of organization is required when almost all of one’s organizers are travelling long distances and sometimes have face-to-face contact only once or twice a year. The same is true of the conference attendees – only a small percentage live in Yellowknife, and most travelled from communities all across the NWT, Nunavut, and the Yukon.

CASW has always been a practical organization, taking every opportunity to further the agenda of the profession of social work in Canada; therefore we had full board meetings while in Yellowknife. Working in different environments often encourages thinking differently as one responds to the immediate surroundings, and this was true in these circumstances. I remember the Yellowknife board meetings as particularly active, verbal, and exciting as we considered various ideas and initiatives to provide leadership and promote the profession. Some of the projects we were working on included the revamping of the Code of Ethics, a variety of position papers, projects for promotion of the profession, and projects with a wide variety of partner agencies and professions.

Through attending the conference and meetings in Yellowknife, I was fortunate to gain invaluable insight into the challenges of providing social work service in remote Northern locations, as well as into the incredible dedication and commitment of those providing these services. There was little sense of despair or hopelessness in the face of these obstacles, but incredible spirit, resourcefulness, and creativity in the lives of the social workers and community members. I was privileged to participate and will fondly remember my CASW Northern experience.

Liz McLeod