Staff and clients of the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society will sorely miss their mentor, Shauna Seneca, but husband Brad Seneca and his managers vow to carry on her vision of helping to heal Aboriginal people.
Shauna passed away suddenly on Dec. 14 from a blood clot following knee surgery, leaving the city to grieve her unexpected passing. Even Mayor Stephen Mandel interrupted city budget deliberations for a moment of silence on the day after her death.
"She was a unique spirit," said Brad. "She could immediately establish a bond with people and pretty soon, they were telling her personal things. She genuinely cared about everyone."
In a rare media interview ? " I used to always let Shauna do the talking" ? Brad reminisced about his late wife and talked about the "from the heart" practices that have made Bent Arrow flourish. Since he and his wife began delivering one program in 1994, the non-profit agency has grown to deliver 14 programs, employing 83 full time and about 24 part time staff.
"Every year Shauna and I used to introduce a new program, something to develop over the year. Well, I'm going to carry on that tradition," said Brad.
The story of Bent Arrow goes back to the early 90's, when Shauna felt ineffective as a provincial social worker placing Aboriginal children and youth in programs that didn't work for them.
"She was searching for a life in which she could be happy," Brad explained. "Two Elders, Dave LaSwisse and Francis Bad Eagle, introduced her to traditional teachings, and I think a light went on for her. She knew Aboriginal culture had much to offer its own people, and herself. She was Scottish, and believe it or not, the two cultures have much in common."
In 1992, Brad was working with the Boyle Street Co-op's HIV program when he met Shauna, who, by then, had left the government and was a private contractor.
"We started having coffee and pretty soon that developed into a relationship. We were married in 1995. But before that, I'd been noticing there was nothing in the city for Aboriginal people coming out of jail. Inside, they had sweats and access to Elders, but outside they had nothing and they'd end up back in jail three or four months later. So I mentioned this to Shauna, and she told me to write a proposal."
Brad followed up on his wife's suggestion, but was turned down by the correctional system. Then Shauna heard about a federal program called Pathways that might be interested in a pre-employment program. Brad followed up on her lead.
"They were interested, but they had a problem with our proposal. They wanted us to change our focus ? to deliver an employment program for youth instead of adults. Well, that just made Shauna's eyes light up. She had worked with youth and loved it.
"Then Pathways told us we had still another problem. But what they said was, we hadn't asked for enough money. They wanted to give us another $20,000 or so. 'Wow', we thought. 'This is the kind of problem we can handle.' We signed the agreement and that was on Dec. 23, 1993. What a Christmas present!"
By January 1994, Shauna, Brad and a part-time secretary had set up shop in a sparsely furnished west Edmonton office, wondering if they had the collective experience and know-how to carry out their proposal.
"We decided to jump in and take the first 25 youth who came to us. They were a pretty rough bunch with no idea where they were going or why they were in our program. Half the time they were hung over, with red eyes, but they'd still show up. I think it was because Shauna was like their mom and I was like their dad. Pretty soon we were taking them to round dances, powwows, and conferences where they could meet Elders and other people. We treated them like family. For once, they felt wanted.
"Shauna would do this thing with them, and they loved it. It was an evaluation, really. She'd tell them what she saw in them and where they were going to be in the future. Their eyes would get big and the'd be amazed at how close to the mark she came. It was like she could read their innermost selves, and since it was always positive stuff, they were always asking to have their evaluation with her."
The pre-employment program was successful, with high numbers of students graduating from the course, and Alberta's Child and Family Services caught wind of Bent Arrow's progress. It wasn't long before Shauna and Brad were asked to develop a group home.
"We had just three weeks to get it up and running and when we finished, it didn't look anything like the other homes we had visited in our orientation. For one thing, we insisted that the cupboards and doors remain unlocked, and that the kids could get stuff out of the fridge whenever they wanted. Child welfare thought we were nuts."
But when inspection day came three months into operation, government officials were greeted by an in-house kokum who was baking bannock and cookies. The house was clean, smelled great, and the young people living there had obviously settled in.
"They thought we'd staged everything to make it look good. But we said 'no', this is what every day is like here at Orenda House. Orenda means 'spiritual essence' in the Seneca language, and the group home was 'from the heart.' From that moment on, Region 6 Edmonton and Area Child and Family Services became one of our partners."
As the number of Bent Arrow's programs grew, Shauna and Brad were on call 24 hours a day. Their lives were focused on the agency and training managers to oversee different areas of the organization. They purchased land outside of the city but never moved there since their careers were focused in Edmonton. Summer camps for kids are have been held there for years and it is available as a quiet retreat for ceremonial and reflective purposes.
With the passing years, as day-to-day operations at Bent Arrow stabilized, Shauna spent time out of the office facilitating workshops and helping staff of other social programs to be mor effective.
According to Cheryl Whiskeyjack, Bent Arrow's senior manager, Shauna was able to take a more hands-off approach because she had trained her staff so well.
"She would always gather us together for reflective practice. We'd evaluate a program to see what went well and what didn't. Then we'd talk about how we could make it even better next time."
Whiskeyjack was working with Shauna in her bedroom the day she passed away.
"We needed to get a proposal done, and she wasn't up to coming into the office. We said 'we'll come and work in your bedroom' and so Shauna's executive assistant and I went to her home. We got the work done, but it was a nice visit, too," she said.
In the days just after Shauna's death, Whiskeyjack and the rest of the staff worried about the future of the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.
"But it wasn't because they didn't know who would tell them how to do their jobs," Brad explained. "It was because 'mom' was gone. The person they trusted to always support them and uplift them wasn't here any more. That was the most important thing about Shauna ? her ability to take time with everyone and to make you feel cared for."