Memorable Moments of Ellen Oliver

My reflections on my four years as president of CASW are dominated with themes of huge demands, dilemmas, challenges, and moments when I could see the worth of our work. Working as president of CASW was in fact much like practising social work: there was plenty of work with too little time and limited resources, but every now and then a glimmer of change or the promise of a good outcome provided motivation. Several of my experiences were quite memorable, some because they were unique and others because they were profound. A few are outlined here as a way of capturing some events during my term as president that form part of CASW’s 80-year history.

There were many small moments of despair and disappointment during my four-year term, but few of these are distinct as I look back over my experiences. One that is distinguishable, however, was the Quebec social work organization’s withdrawal from CASW. The events leading to this occurrence were distressing, and final separation was painful for the organization and for the individuals who had established collaborative and warm relationships over many years. The needs of the Quebec organization could not be satisfied within the values and mandate that were the foundations of CASW. The discussions held around this situation and the final outcome represent some of the most difficult aspects of operating a national organization.

Many positive memories come to my mind, and the first is my speech at the United Nations Building in New York. I spoke there as part of a panel presentation for Social Work Day at the United Nations. I remember sitting on the stage as social workers were taking their seats and thinking about my parents and what they would be thinking if they were alive and able to know that I was speaking in a meeting at the UN! It was an unimaginable personal opportunity for me to find myself in that setting. The experience also caused me to think about the many ways in which CASW is connected, respected, and influential. Our visit there occurred just after the United States had invaded Iraq, and we were all feeling the need to highlight the importance of finding peaceful and proactive ways to give meaning to our lives and those of the populations with whom we work.

Another moment that has stayed with me was a 30-second conversation that occurred at the national conference in Moncton, New Brunswick. I was standing in the hall as people were leaving at the end of the conference when a participant stopped and said that she was so pleased that she had attended. She explained that she had been feeling like giving up on social work and had been very discouraged when she arrived, but was now revitalized and ready to go back to work with new energy. I was so pleased to be part of something that had made such a difference to a colleague.

My two trips to Northern Canada have stayed with me as special memories. These days spent among social workers who work with the many challenges posed by isolation, harsh weather, limited resources, and the complex problems experienced by Aboriginal peoples gave me great hope for the future of our profession. The social workers in the North reminded me of the power of the collective, the essence of social work, and the importance of commitment to the profession. I came away with deepened respect for the capacity of a few dedicated people to overcome obstacles and make a difference in their communities.

During my time as president, we continued to build our relationship with the National Association of Social Workers in the United States. I have very positive memories of meetings with various representatives of that organization, in particular the presidents and the executive director. Although our organizations are vastly different in size and capacity, we were able to find meaningful ways to collaborate and establish relationships that should endure long into the future. It was wonderful to be a participant in the negotiations that led to a memorandum of understanding between the two organizations.

These experiences stand out as special because they are rather sparkling moments. However, I also recall the many intense and meaningful conversations that I had with CASW board members, presidents of provincial organizations, and colleagues across the country. These conversations in meetings, at workshops, at conferences, and at consultations all helped to move our profession forward and achieve our goals. Perhaps the conversations that will most remain with me are those I had with our executive director, Eugenia Moreno, as we travelled on buses, in taxis, and on airplanes and sat in hotel rooms, airports, restaurants, and meeting rooms. These conversations focused on analyzing and responding to the issues and challenges facing our profession and the populations we serve, and these were the times when we used our knowledge and skills to develop strategies to advance the CASW organization in ways that would be responsive to member organizations and the Canadian public. Although mainly invisible, these moments will remain in my memory as the times when I felt I was doing the major work of CASW president and making my contribution.

Ellen Oliver