The Indigenous-led agency responsible for Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux failed the Cree teen during his brief life by not connecting him to his culture and by placing him in a group home without trying harder to keep him with his birth mother, an executive told an inquest into his suicide.
Kyla Darby, executive director of programs at Xyolhemeylh, also known as the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society, testified Tuesday that shortly after Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux’s death in September, 2020, her agency created a program to connect foster teens with nearby elders.
“I don’t think we implemented the services and supports he needed from a cultural standpoint,” said Ms. Darby, who had a long career as a social worker before joining Xyolhemeylh’s leadership in 2019. “We could have done better.”
Wenona Hall, former president of Xyolhemeylh’s board and a member of the Stó:lō First Nation, told the inquest that earlier testimony from Murray McMaster and Brett Claxton, staff at Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux’s group home, demonstrated their ignorance of the impact colonization has had on Indigenous people and their lack of knowledge about Indigenous issues in general. Dr. Hall, whose PhD research focused on how her Nation was governed and raised children before Contact, criticized the surface-level attempts agency staff and its subcontractors made to connect Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux with his Indigenous culture.
“Asking him to go to cultural gatherings with Murray or Brett? Are you kidding me? That’s not going to happen,” said Dr. Hall, who joined Xyolhemeylh’s board for three years in 2013 and again in 2019 before ending her latest term last month.
The inquest was called this spring following a Globe and Mail investigation into the death of the teen, whose body was discovered in his bedroom closet four days after he was reported missing. After the final witnesses are scheduled to testify on Wednesday, the five jurors will determine when and how Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux died and craft recommendations for systemic changes that could prevent other foster children from dying in similar circumstances.
The Globe investigation found serious deficiencies at Xyolhemeylh, one of 24 Indigenous Child and Family Service agencies charged with providing foster care to First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth in British Columbia. During the Globe investigation, Xyolhemeylh declined numerous requests to comment.
Ms. Darby also said that if her agency had done more to keep the teen with his mother in her Abbotsford, B.C., apartment in the spring of 2019, he undoubtedly would have been more connected to his Indigenous culture.
Dr. Hall echoed that sentiment, stating his mother was worried her son’s chronic cannabis smoking would run her afoul of the strict rules at her affordable housing unit and that she also had concerns about his anger. Both those problems could have been resolved, Dr. Hall testified, if Xyolhemeylh had considered finding her better housing and offering more support to the teen instead of spending thousands of dollars to place him in a home run by strangers with no connection to his culture.
Ms. Darby testified that 15 per cent of the teens in their care are living in group homes, with 11 of these facilities overseen by the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development and another nine run by subcontractors, like the one where Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux killed himself. Ms. Darby said it would be a conflict of interest for Xyolhemeylh to staff and run these homes itself because it has been delegated to provide guardianship to these teens.
Her agency is struggling to replace these rooms with families willing to open up the doors of their homes to foster youth, she testified, with eight of these new family spaces opening up over the past year.
“We’re not making great progress,” she said.
Marion Buller, co-counsel for the teen’s mother, Samantha Chalifoux, asked Ms. Darby why provincial ministry audits of her agency have identified chronic understaffing over the past decade.
Ms. Darby replied that social work is a competitive field with high rates of burnout, but her agency is resolving its lack of staff since the last audit in 2019 by raising pay to meet what the province pays these professionals.