At Mawita’mk, the annual statements are posted to the website and the doors are always open for visitors. As a group home serving a population that has suffered greatly under institutions in the past, this is the only way to operate, says team leader Tracy Russell.
Though federal and provincial government policies appear to promote community inclusion and care for people with intellectual disabilities, many Mi’kmaq must leave their culture and community if they need support.
Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy and Tom Gunn headed a volunteer group around the creation of the Mawita'mk Society in the 1980s, applied to the Human Rights Commission for recognition and won the right to exist and offer housing as a charitable organization in 2001. It’s the only housing for First Nations people living with intellectual disabilities in Atlantic Canada, staffed by First Nations people on Whycocomagh (We’koqma’q) First Nations land in Cape Breton, N.S. Its mandate is to serve the Mi’kmaq population in the Maritime provinces, Quebec and Maine, but its scope extends across boundaries: a Californian descendant of a New Brunswick tribe has inquired about the home as well.
The board secured funding from the federal government and in April 2007, opened the door to its home called Ni’kinen, or “our house”, which supports five people. The society is provincially licensed, but is still fighting for more individualized support for its members who are often suspended between two levels of government.
Mawita'mk means “being together” in the Mi’kmaq language. The society discloses all of its revenue and expenditure in statements online and maintains an open door policy where family can visit any time of the day, a different approach than other group homes and institutions in the province. You can hear Mi’kmaq spoken in the communal areas. One man, who had forgotten his language while living in a non-native community, began speaking Mi’kmaq upon arriving at the home.
Residents of Ni’kinen are between 28 and 55 years old. One gentleman draws and paints. Another writes poetry. A few members sing and dance. And an older man and woman have adopted the roles of clan mother and father, says Russell.
“It’s a home away from home,” she says. “We are an extended family here.”
The society also offer supportive apartments for five people. One vacancy was to be filled in March. All of the individuals are high-functioning but live with intellectual disabilities and mental illness.
Russell works on a team of seven full time staff, two office workers, five support staff and five casual workers. Two people are currently on the wait list for beds in the group home. Russell says the homes would need more funding to provide support for individuals with higher needs.
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She’d like to see greater accord between the two levels of government. Federal and provincial officials should “work together, instead of blaming the other for the shortfalls in the system,” she says.
The federal government provides a per diem rate for clothing and comfort, but nothing over and above. That means often the board has to pay for things, like transition lenses for one man who needed glasses, out of its own pocket because the non-insured health benefits program won’t pay for them.
“When we first opened, the federal government said they'd honour anything the provincial government would do for group homes across the province but we've had no such luck with anything,” says Russell.
Other small residential options in the area are limited. By 2020, the board would like to see single unit housing open in other communities for Mi’kmaq people with intellectual disabilities or mental illness, and provide outreach and support for them as well. That way, people can stay within their own communities if they chose.