Monday, November 18, 2013

Helping people matters for Douglas College Co-occurring Disorders grad

                                                                David Denofreo photo
Ask Ernie Cardinal how he is, and the Douglas College student will likely tell you, “It’s a good day to be indigenous.”

Ernie isn’t kidding. As a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation (which makes him Cree), from northern Alberta, Ernie is proud of his heritage and culture. It’s a background he draws upon in his work as an Aboriginal support worker for the Langley school district, where he is posted at a middle school and with an alternative program for youth.

Ernie came to Douglas to study Child and Youth Care, but then discovered Co-occurring Disorders, a program that provides specialized training for social workers and health care professionals in dealing with clients battling mental illness and addiction concurrently. Earlier this year, Ernie earned an Advanced Citation in Co-occuring Disorders. He says the program opened his eyes.

“The Aboriginal population is diagnosed with a lot of mental health issues, and they seem to self-medicate, so that's where the alcohol and drug issues come in,” Ernie says. “Poverty, colonization and the residential school experience – all of these weigh heavy on Aboriginal people, many of whom are street-entrenched.

Dear to his heart and close to his own experiences growing up. Ernie describes himself as having been a “very, very bad youth.” He was in and out of jail, homeless, drinking, taking drugs and “doing whatever I could to almost kill myself.”

But things started to change for Ernie when he was 17 and living on a boys’ ranch in Alberta, a tough place far from the city on the open prairie that had no fences, as there was nowhere to run to.

“They were like, ‘go, you can run,’” he recalls. “‘Two days later we'll still see you on the horizon.’”

One day there was an electrical fire in the barn that killed most of the animals, leaving behind 12 newborn goats. The youth workers gave them to the kids to take care of. Ernie was charged with two.

“These little goats literally changed my life. Before, I didn’t care about anything, and suddenly I had to care for these two little goats. I watched them grow up and the whole bit. I had to feed them every two hours. And that's when I started caring.”

Shortly thereafter, Ernie moved back home with his mom and started volunteering at the local friendship centre, where his mom was executive director.

“My mother was just an amazing inspiration to me. She still is a driving light in the Aboriginal community.”

It took a few more years for Ernie to get his alcohol consumption under control.

“Unfortunately, I still wanted to have fun, and that's a problem with a lot of our Aboriginal people. We want to have fun and we don't want to face responsibility. But the whole point of the Circle of Courage and our beliefs, like our medicine wheels, is that we need to achieve a sense of belonging, mastery, generosity and independence. And the whole point of having independence is we have to be accountable for ourselves. It takes a while. Everyone's road is different. But I finally got there.”

Ernie is also continuing his studies at Douglas College, pursuing a degree in Child and Youth Care. His main goal is helping vulnerable Aboriginal people gain back their independence, dignity, and a healthy mind and soul.