All in the Family

By chance or by choice—grandparents raising grandchildren face a myriad of challenges…

In the Comox Valley, visit this site the I-Hos Gallery is known as the place to go for authentic West Coast First Nation art. What started as an economic development project for the Comox Indian Band has become a unique venue for showcasing and revitalizing First Nations culture in the Valley and throughout Vancouver Island.

In 1995, price the Comox Indian Band—now the K’ómoks First Nation—was looking to develop business opportunities on its Courtenay reserve and create job opportunities for Band members.

Then Band Manager Liz McLeod happened to meet Nancy Nightengale, drugs a member of the Squamish Nation and owner of Kahot-la-cha Art Gallery and Gift Shop in North Vancouver. McLeod, along with community member April Shopland, decided the Comox Band could take advantage of the local tourism industry with a similar gallery on the reserve. They set out to make it happen with guidance and support from Nightengale.

The I-Hos Gallery opened its doors in November of 1995 as a K’ómoks First Nation fully owned and operated business, with a mandate to promote and sell First Nations art. Staff quickly realized, though, there was a huge interest in—and substantial market for— local First Nations art, culture and history.

“When we first opened, we tried dealing with all First Nations,” explains Ramona Johnson, Gallery manager, of the early days. That included artwork from First Nations artists throughout BC and Canada. “But after being opened for a few months we realized because of where we were situated our customers were coming to us for West Coast art.

“People were also using us more like a museum, because they’d often stop at the door asking the entrance price,” she says . “We still get people from the Base who don’t know they’re allowed in.”

That and, “we had to educate people because they all thought we were Haida!” says Johnson with a laugh.

The gallery shifted gears, and started educating everyone who came through the gallery doors about the artwork they were interested in buying.

I-Hos produced maps showing the traditional territories of the Island’s three native cultural groups—the Kwakwaka’wakw on the northern and northwest coast, the Coast Salish on the southern and east coast, and the Nuu-chah-nulth spanning the west coast—and the many nations within these groups.

The Gallery also developed text describing the differences in each group’s artwork. For example, masks and button blankets are a big part of the Kwakwaka’wakw culture, while the Nuu-chah-nulth have a tradition of bentwood boxes and cedar bark baskets. The Coast Salish are known for their woodcarvings with elaborate animal designs.

The Gallery even hired Elders to share the legends and stories depicted in West Coast First Nations art. Johnson notes that the designs used in First Nation art are typically part of a family’s history passed on from generation to generation.

“So the artist is not only sharing their talent, they are sharing a very big part of their family, their history and themselves,” says Johnson. Sharing the stories reinforces family lineages.

In many ways, this sort of education is something only the K’ómoks First Nation could do.

Historically, the K’ómoks people occupied settlements on the border of Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish territory from Salmon River (Kelsey Bay) to Denman and Hornby Island. K’ómoks people are Coast Salish in origin, but integrated into Kwakwaka’wakw society through marriage. “Comox” is an anglicization of kw’umuxws, which is derived from the Kwakw’ala term ‘kw’umalha’, meaning “plentiful; rich, wealthy.”

Present-day K’ómoks people are the heirs to both Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish customs and practices. In fact, what is today known as the Comox Valley has always been a melding point for First Nations culture, whether through conflict, marriage or European contact. An ancestral chief of the K’ómoks people was even chosen to represent the interests of all Island First Nations to the European explorers and settlers.

“We belong to it all,” says Johnson. “We know the culture and the traditions and we understand the work.”

That understanding means good working relationships with all the artists who bring their work to I-Hos, and a vested interest in the product and the outcome.

“The people here have always been really nice,” says Alfred Seaweed, a Kwakwaka’wakw silver carver from Alert Bay who has been bringing his jewelry to I-Hos from the very beginning. “And it’s unique because we’re dealing with people of our own culture. It’s not like a business relationship, it’s a personal relationship between us and them.”

Coast Salish and Kwagulth woodcarver Noel Brown agrees: “It’s more comfortable,” says Brown, who lives in Nanaimo. “It’s easier to talk to Mona because she’s native and she knows everything. Mona knows all the history and it’s not just a made-up story. She belongs to a lot of the stuff and she can share the true meaning of the carvings.”

For her part, Johnson wants “our First Nations’ artists to be represented with the respect they deserve.” That means dealing directly with the artists, and buying their work outright rather than on consignment. Johnson also provides the artists with feedback from customers, and allows the artists to exchange their work for items more likely to sell. The result is artists who enjoy working with the gallery, so much so they often provide I-Hos with their best work.

For people like Carol Sheehan, a Comox Valley resident, author and leading expert in Northwest Coast Art, it’s the relationship between the artists, I-Hos as a business, and the culture that makes the gallery so unique.

“It’s really different from other galleries or gift shops aimed at the general pubic,” says Sheehan. “[I-Hos] has made a place for First Nation artists to have a real, identifiable and authentic voice, and that’s critical.”

Sheehan notes that many First Nation art traditions went into decline in the 19th and early 20th centuries when disease ravaged First Nations populations and government policy repressed traditional cultural activities like the Potlatch. Often the traditional holders of artistic knowledge died without having an opportunity to pass on their knowledge, or there was no one to take their place.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that First Nations people interested in their own traditions and culture were able to look at the old art, reproduce it, and then start innovating. I-Hos supports the process of cultural rediscovery by teaching the traditions and providing a venue for those who are practicing those traditions to sell their work.

“This is a place where First Nation youth can go into the gallery and sense the pride and sense the viability of the culture and where their own personal cultural identity is reinforced and enhanced,” says Sheehan.

“I-Hos is an expression of economic development on First Nations terms, and they’re doing it as members of the community,” she continues. “They are not presenting themselves as museum specimens. They are presenting themselves as viable members and leaders and teachers in not only this community but throughout Canada.”

And that to Sheehan is absolutely vital. “That First Nations culture stills exists is a testament to the strength of the culture,” she says. “The fact that today we have a continuation of those histories is because of the resilience and strength of the culture to survive and to continue to be alive and viable and not to be extinguished in any way.

“The traditions are living, breathing, happening, innovating every day. First Nations artists today are 21st century people,” Sheehan adds. “Tradition for them is what I’m doing now and I am a maker of tradition. It is within that cultural context that they are supporting and building up the culture.”

Still, it’s the misunderstandings about contemporary First Nations culture that prove one of the biggest challenges to I-Hos staff.

“One thing that we are always correcting is that we are alive and a living culture,” says Johnson. “It is not something of the past. Yes, our elders and teachers did not have the tools that we have today so things are definitely looking more polished. You will have artists that are doing contemporary and old school. This is a personal preference on the part of the artist.”

“There are many people who are carriers of the culture through the art,” adds Sheehan. “They have continued to build-up and to project that culture into the future. They are living carriers of the legacy of First Nations traditions and culture.” ¦

The I-Hos Gallery is located at 3310 Comox Road, Courtenay. For more information visit: or

When Sandra and Frank Spencer* said their wedding vows they knew that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. It was 1978 and the starry-eyed newlyweds had visions of owning a home and raising a family. They fantasized about growing old together, having grandchildren to spoil and the time—and financial resources—to be able to head south for a few weeks in the winter.

For the first 20 years of their marriage everything fell into place according to plan. They bought a home and adopted three beautiful children. Frank had a good job that held promise of a great retirement. All of that changed in the late 1980s when their daughter, the eldest of the three children, started running with a bad crowd and exhibiting behavioral issues beyond their control. By the age of 16, she had run away from home, was addicted to drugs and then became pregnant.

Emotion sweeps across Sandra Spencer’s face as she explains how it felt to get that phone call from the Ministry of Children and Family Development about 15 years ago. Considering that they had lost touch with their daughter for a few months, and were not even aware that she was pregnant, the phone call came as a complete shock.

The caseworker explained the urgency of the situation. When it becomes necessary to remove a child from a living situation where they may be in danger of abuse or neglect they don’t mince words and waste time. Family members can’t sit down to review their budget, figure out sleeping arrangements and then decide if they can take charge of the minor. The immediate protection of the child is a priority.

The Spencers were given two choices: One: Come to the mainland to immediately take custody of their infant grandchild, or two: Allow their first grandchild to enter the foster care system and possibly disappear from their lives forever.

Despite the fact that they had two children under the age of 12 still at home, the Spencers knew in their hearts that they really had no choice but to accept this responsibility. They drove to the mainland and welcomed the newest addition to their family. Sadly, in addition to drug addictions, their daughter had been diagnosed with mental illness. Her addictions and illness rendered her incapable of making good decisions. She would give birth to two more children over the next seven years. Eventually all three children would come to live with Grandma and Grandpa Spencer full-time.

Now in their early 60s, the Spencers find themselves living a scenario that never would have imagined. There is no hope that Frank can retire any time soon. While they are still helping their youngest son through college, they also have three grandchildren under the age of 15 living with them. So, instead of gearing up for retirement, they are shuttling kids to various sports practices and birthday parties. They are getting up at night to comfort and console sick children. To add to the challenge, the children have all been diagnosed with various health problems, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and other mental and physical illnesses directly related to their mother’s addictions. It is a routine that leaves them both exhausted at the end of every day. And sadly, over time, it has also left them out of touch with other people their own age.

From the outside looking in, the Spencer’s life may seem extraordinary but it is their reality. What is really alarming is that they are not alone. Grandparents raising grandchildren without support of the parents are part of a social phenomenon that has been described as an ‘underground network of childcare’. Sometimes it is the separation, divorce or death of the parents that result in grandma getting custody of the grandkids. It may be because a single parent is recovering from illness, is off at school or required to work away from home for long periods of time. Sadly, more often than not, it is a result of mental illness and/or substance abuse and addictions that result in child neglect. This is a societal problem that is affecting people from across Canada, from all socio-economic groups, all races and religions.

Statistics Canada reports that in 2006 there were more than 65,000 grandparents raising some 40,000 grandchildren in Canada. Two-thirds of them are single women. In British Columbia alone there were close to 10,000 grandparents raising 6,600 grandkids. Bear in mind that statistics do not include multi-generational families—where one or two grandparents live in the same home as the parents. These are homes where the parent(s) are absent and it is the grandparents who are tucking the kids into bed every night and attending parent/teacher conferences. Nor does it include situations where the grandkids are not legally registered with their grandparents as the legal guardians.

It is interesting to note that if a grandparent, aunt, uncle or other extended family member secures legal custody of a child in this situation they receive very little financial support from the government. Foster families receive much more funding.

About three years ago the impact of this new parenting paradigm shift started to become increasingly apparent to community support workers at the Comox Valley Child Development Association (CVCDA) and the Transition Society. Often, a home visit from a support worker or an appointment at the CVCDA office would be a grandparent’s only regular social contact.

“The grandparents we were working with reported feelings of shame and judgment amongst their friends and neighbors… and they expressed feelings of both mental and physical fatigue,” explains Lee Bjornson, an Infant Development Consultant at the CVCDA. “Very often, unexpectedly accommodating a full-time grandchild— or two—required a major lifestyle change and, in almost every case, was a financial challenge. It is enough to live on a pension without the added expenses of raising a child.”

“Many grandparents also said that they were forced to put off their retirement plans and that they faced social isolation,” adds Heather Ney, executive director of the Transition Society. “Combine that with feeling ‘out of sync’ with current parenting practices and issues, coping with their own health problems plus the health and developmental problems of the grandchild—problems that often stem from the parents’ addictions. We knew that many of these grandparents were sinking into depression and self-doubt and that something had to be done to help them.”

To respond to this growing need, in 2006 the two organizations partnered to create the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group. Meetings are held every Monday morning from 10:30-11:30 at the Child Development Association, 237 Third Street, Courtenay. There is no fee to attend, free childcare can be arranged if needed, and a referral is not required. About 15 to 20 people attend the meetings facilitated by Lee Bjarnason from the CVCDA and Diana Paige from the Transition Society.

For Sandra Spencer and the other grandparents who attend the support group meetings, this has become a welcome addition to their weekly routines. Having somewhere and someone to share both their unique frustrations and triumphs with has been a blessing.

Some weeks, she explains, the room is filled with laughter as they share funny stories. Other weeks it is filled with empathetic tears when they relay stories of sadness, frustration and disappointment. Someone usually brings cookies or snacks—occasionally a full lunch—to share with others. Sometimes they bring in guest speakers to address a specific topic but, most often, they just take time to talk and to listen in a non-judgmental and supportive environment where everyone feels respected and appreciated.

Sandra explains that one of the biggest emotional struggles shared by members of the support group is that their role as grandparent is dramatically different than ‘normal’. In their unique situations, they have taken on the role of the disciplinarian. The parents— if they are in the picture at all—often flit in and out of the children’s lives. Everyone, she says, talks about how difficult it is to watch how excited the children get when a parent shows up, only to be disappointed when he or she then forgets to call on a birthday or isn’t heard from again for weeks. Usually, it is this kind of excitement—without the subsequent disappointment—that is reserved for Oma and Opa.

Another tough challenge is the on-going fear of what will happen to the children if something happens to them. “This is something we all worry about,” says Spencer. “In our case, my husband and I are still in relatively good health. In the event that we were unable to care for the kids, our eldest son said he would look after them. While we are grateful for his commitment, we hope that we never have to take him up on the offer. Not all grandparents raising grandchildren have someone to rely on. Then, of course, there is always hope that one day your adult child will be in a position to take back the responsibility of raising their own child.”

Spencer lowers her eyes and takes a pause for thought. “It is heart-breaking,” she says quietly. “This is not what I ever imagined being a grandparent would be like.”

Bjornson adds that coping with the challenges of raising grandchildren is often especially difficult for men. They are often not able to attend the Monday morning meetings or doctor/therapist appointments due to work commitments. It would be ideal, she says, if an evening support group could be set up to provide people who are still working full-time with a place to go for support. The barrier, of course, is lack of funding. While the Transition Society is grateful for the current funding provided by the BC Association for Charitable Gaming, they would love to find another source of funding that would allow them to have an evening support group.

Despite the day-to-day challenges, Spencer says that there are many benefits of having grandparents raising grandchildren– beyond the obvious of keeping them out of an overburdened foster care system and the disruption of being placed in multiple care situations. On the up side is the companionship and unconditional love that a child provides to the senior, as well as the satisfaction in knowing that your grandchildren are living safe and happy lives.

“Research—and common sense—tells us that children need the continuity and security of having ‘roots’ and family traditions,” says Bjarnason. “They need to hear stories about and see pictures of their parent(s) and they need to feel safe, loved and cared for. Although they may feel rejected by their parent(s), they do not feel rejected by the entire family and that is really, really important.

“A recent study in the US found that children placed in the care of extended family members [as opposed to the foster system] have as good an outcome in health and behavior as children raised by both biological parents. Studies of aboriginal families found less suicide amongst children taken into care by family members. Grandparents raising grandchildren are giving an incredible gift to both their adult child and the grandchildren and they should not have to feel like they are alone.”

“If I had to, I would do this all over again,” says Spencer. “My grandchildren mean the world to me. I know they love Frank and me very much and that they are grateful that we are providing them with a home.”

For more information on the Comox Valley Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group contact: Lee Bjarnason:

250-338-4288 or [email protected]

Diana Paige: 250-897-0511 or [email protected]

Similar support groups have been established across Vancouver Island. There are chapters in Victoria, Duncan, Nanaimo and Port Alberni. A new group is being started in Parksville. For more information on these groups call toll free: 1-877-345-9777 or check

*Note: Names and some details of the family featured in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

One Response to All in the Family

  1. have just finished reading your letter[terri perrin dec 2010] it made me feel a lot better.
    we thought we were the only ones going through this problem hope to read more like this.
    is there a grandparent suport group in surrey.bc
    ed & brenda