By Sophie McGregor
When a job posting for a support worker at the only women’s centre in Haida Gwaii came up, Kelsey Chamberlin knew the position was a fit for her. Equipped with a degree in sociology and ecology, passionate about women’s empowerment, and drawn to the idea of living in the remote northern British Columbia archipelago, she decided to apply. “The work seemed in line with my passion for client-centred and trauma-informed care,” she explains, adding it also aligned with her interest in supporting women who experience violence. While she had a good idea of what the position would entail, what she couldn’t have known is that she’d be starting a new job in a remote town during a pandemic.
Kelsey was set to begin work in late March of this year, but with COVID-19 precautions in place, she had to quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in Haida Gwaii, pushing her start date to mid-April.
The Tlaa Juuhldaa Naay* Transition House is located in the Village of Masset, which serves the rural area of around 2,300 people. As a support worker, Kelsey works eight-hour shifts at the six-bedroom transition house—a temporary emergency shelter for women and their children who have experienced violence or are at risk of experiencing violence. Her role includes engaging with clients and fostering a welcoming, household environment. This comprises running activities, intaking clients, goal setting and long-term planning with clients, and helping complete abuser risk assessments when needed.
Getting settled into a new job is never easy, but Kelsey had to do this in the midst of COVID-19 and its accompanying rules and restrictions. Kelsey says, “The physical distancing creates an additional barrier between me as a support worker and clients, which makes it all the more challenging to connect [with them] emotionally.”
For example, the intake for new clients at the transition house is often a lengthy process that can be emotionally draining for those in crisis. Pre-COVID, intake was conducted in-person with a support worker over multiple days, with breaks when the client needed. During the pandemic, the intake has to be done over the phone. Kelsey finds that without the physical cues available in face-to-face interactions, it’s challenging to gauge how a client is coping and to adequately convey the empathy she feels for the client’s experience.
Once a client arrives at the transition house, they are advised to minimize in-person contact, wear a mask, and comply with rules about hand washing and when they are allowed to leave the house. According to Kelsey, these COVID-19-related policies, while necessary to ensure everyone’s safety and wellbeing, create additional barriers for those accessing services. As Kelsey puts it, “It takes a lot of courage and bravery to leave an abusive situation. Women may have many reasons to not leave. Imagine what it is like for somebody experiencing violence to try to leave one controlling and abusive environment, only to go to another environment with lots of rules and control.”
Kelsey also expressed that another barrier to client’s accessing the transition house, is that Kelsey, as well as many of her colleagues, are white, while a large percentage of the area’s population is Haida. Kelsey and her team are sensitive to the fact that the lack of adequate Haida representation on the support worker team may mean that some victims of violence might not feel comfortable accessing their support.
These are challenging times, but Kelsey and the rest of the staff are working together to find ways to make the transition house a welcoming place. They are striving to provide consistency and create a space filled with empathy and compassion for survivors, and in doing so make a home amidst such uncertainty. Kelsey herself feels supported and welcomed by the transition centre staff as they navigate these times together. “I came into this job and I was learning how to be a support worker, but [all the transition house staff] were also in a state of learning of how to be a support worker during a pandemic,” Kelsey explains.
While the physical distancing policies are unlikely to change any time soon in Haida Gwaii, Kelsey is grateful for some positive change that has come from the pandemic. An increase of funding due to COVID-19 has meant that the transition house was able to buy supplies to build garden beds. Kelsey is excited about sharing the experience of growing fruits and vegetables with the clients and her team as she grows into her new role in the community.
*Tlaa Juuhldaa Naay means “A place of Change” in Haida, the language of the Haida people. It is a part of the Haida Gwaii Society for Community Peace. To learn more, visit http://www.hgpeace.ca/