Yukon North Of Ordinary

News archive for December 24, 2009

‘I feel like this job is my thanks’

In the months before Andy Nieman’s new job even existed, the position was the subject of criticism and disappointment from many.

By Justine Davidson on December 24, 2009 at 3:07 pm


Photo by Vince Fedoroff

BEGINNING THE TASK – Andy Nieman, seen getting sworn in as the territory’s child advocate last Friday, says the help of parents and communities is essential for his work to succeed.

In the months before Andy Nieman’s new job even existed, the position was the subject of criticism and disappointment from many.

Last year, first nations leaders were angry that the territory’s new Child and Family Services Act was created without their input.

The act mandated the government to create another piece of legislation, the Child and Family Advocate Act, which was passed in April 2009 and which garnered the same complaints about a lack of proper consultation.

Earlier this year, former Ta’an Kwachan Council chief Ruth Massie put it bluntly: “Seventy per cent of the children in care are first nations. We should have had a strong voice in the creation of this legislation. We did not.”

The act and the position it created met with further scorn from opposition MLAs when it was tabled in the legislature. Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell tried to amend the act to give the advocate the power to launch independent investigations, but was voted down by the government majority.

“There are 10 members on that side of the house. Who will speak for the children?” Mitchell railed at the close of debate.

“Not one – not even to stand up and say ‘No, we disagree (with the amendments), and these are the reasons. Silence. Shameful silence.”

But in spite of all these vociferous criticisms, Nieman, who was sworn into the position last Friday, is enthusiastic and optimistic about his new job.

“Legislators are saying the advocate doesn’t have any teeth, it doesn’t have any power, but there’s power in knowledge, there’s power in teaching,” he told the Star this week.

And he isn’t particularly worried about what politicians think of him; the people he is interested in are the ones he is charged with advocating for. And their trust will have to be earned.

“My real power is going to come with my ability to resolve a conflict. Once they see that I am at arm’s-length from the government, that I’m not coming with the government agenda, that I’m coming with the child’s best interest at heart, then I am doing my job.”

Nieman is no stranger to difficult positions. Born in Whitehorse, the 47-year-old man is the son of a Northern Tutchone woman and a Dutch-German trapper.

Because Nieman’s father’s work took him out of the city for much of the year, Nieman and his eight siblings were raised primarily by their mother, an alcoholic.

“I come from a fairly rough childhood,” Nieman says simply.

Although his mother lost her Indian status when she married a non-native, Nieman was eventually sent to residential school anyway. At the age of 10, he was taken to Lower Post, B.C.

“I came through all kinds of abuse there,” he says of his time at the school. “And that basically set a pattern for my life.”

At 16, Nieman dropped out and graduated to a life on the streets of Vancouver. He got hooked on alcohol, cocaine and heroin. He stole and he panhandled to feed his addictions.

“Basically, I lived on the avails of crime for 10 years,” he says.

When Nieman was in his mid-twenties, his mother found God. She began praying for him, he recalls, and urged him to pray himself, to ask God for help in repairing his life. She asked others to pray for her son as well.

One of those people prayed that Nieman wouldn’t be able to enjoy drugs anymore. The day after he heard of this particular request to God, Nieman was in his room with a couple hits of cocaine and a bag of pot.

He began preparing himself a syringe, dissolving the cocaine so he could inject it. But his hand shook, and the mixture spilled into the wooden floor of his single room.

“I was so angry,” he recalls.

“There was no way I could get it back – it was gone. I fixed myself another syringe and a put it in my arm, but I was so angry about losing the first one, I couldn’t even feel it.”

So he rolled himself a joint and smoked it.

“I didn’t get stoned; I couldn’t.”

So Nieman made a pact with a God he hardly believed in.

“I told God if he got me a bed in detox, then I would believe in him. If there was no bed, then I would know he didn’t exist.”

Nieman was setting himself up. He knew there would be no bed. There never was; the detox centre down the street from him was always full.

That night, Nieman tossed and turned as his body began to go into withdrawal. First thing in the morning, he walked the block to the detox centre and knocked on the door.

“The guy opened the door and I asked him about a bed. He said, ‘Boy are you ever lucky; someone just left. We’ve got one bed open.’

“I never looked back.”

In the 16 years since knocking on that door, Nieman finished high school and earned his social work degree. God has remained an integral part of his life, and he is ordained as a minister of the United Pentecostal Church International.

“No matter what life has thrown at you as a child, no matter what pain you have experienced, you can go on to succeed,” Nieman says of his own experience.

In talking about his new job and the issues he will encounter, the effects of residential schools come high on the list.

“Most Canadians don’t know what really went on there,” he says of the abuses doled out to first nations children in the church- and state-run schools.

“They may know that kids were sent to live at these schools, but they don’t have any idea of the horrific things that were done to them.”

And although the current generation of elementary and high school students didn’t directly experience the physical, sexual, and psychological abuses that happened there, they are still affected by them.

Sexual and physical abuses get passed down from one generation to the next. Alcoholism and drug abuse are taught in the home. Old wounds bleed silence into the younger generation.

“Some people won’t touch their children because they are afraid of what it might bring out in them,” he says of the less obvious problems he sees.

“They just give them gifts – whatever they ask for – and so you have these kids who get whatever material thing they want, but they are never hugged and told, ‘I love you.’ They are never disciplined except to hear, ‘Don’t do that. I told you not to do that.’”

This silence has touched Nieman too. After three years working as a therapist at the Kwanlin Dun First Nation’s community wellness program, another three as an outreach worker with Yukon child abuse treatment services and three more as a private therapist, he says he has rarely been thanked for his work.

“There’s a part of me that thinks I don’t need the thanks,” he says. “But part of me really wants it. I feel like this job is my thanks.”

Speaking about the work he sees himself doing as child and youth advocate, Nieman says he sees young people suffering from what he calls the crab-pot syndrome.

“When you tell someone over and over that they are dirty and stupid and will never amount to anything, they start to believe it,” Nieman says of the way children were treated in the residential school system.

“Now you see the effect of that in first nations communities. When someone starts to succeed, everyone else tries to drag them back down into the pot.

“I see it in our youth. That’s why our grad rates are so low. When someone starts to succeed, they’re going against what they’ve been taught to believe about themselves.”

Changing that habit will be an integral part of dealing with the high crime and dropout rates amongst first nation youth, Nieman said.

“The first nations have a lot of expectations, but I have a lot of expectations of them as well,” he says.

“This position is not the answer to every child welfare issue there is. People who think I will be able to single-handedly hold the government responsible have to realize that advocacy works both ways. Parents and communities must be there as well.

“We may wrestle with each other’s points of view, we may wrestle with each other’s philosophies, but as long as we keep the children’s welfare as our number one priority, then we can really help the child we’re dealing with.”

CommentsAdd a comment


Dec 24, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Question: Why are 70 percent of children in care First Nations? And why are at least 80 percent of the inmates in our jails First Nations? And maybe when the First Nations start contributing something to the Government coffers they will have the right to input. In the meantime, lets have some First Nations input in answering these two questions. I’m not a racist, (although I will be viewed as one after this comment) but, I’m not blind and ignorant either.

Arn Anderson

Dec 24, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Another issue of “Who Cares”. You want to know a great detox center? The 98 Breakfast Club. Free daycare at city hall right across the street and a court of who gives a s**t half a block away to waste your time with those pesky charges the RCMP gave you.

Andy Niemen is another bureacratic clown looking for his own, dont listen to him.

Jack Malone

Dec 24, 2009 at 5:29 pm

I respect Andy - but the system will wear him out in a year or less.  The “new” system is only a reflection of the old system and it is designed to oppose and frustrate parents and communities.  In the eyes of territorial officials: the system is never wrong, it never makes mistakes and it does not care about your point of view - so there is no need for any sort of accountability, oversight or review.  Good luck, Andy - but you are naive to think that you can change this system.  It will chew you up.  This system needs to be ripped apart and pulled into the 21st century!  Another sorry legacy from Fentie.

Lynn Alcock

Dec 24, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Congratulations Andy. Yukon and its First Nations communities couldn’t have found a better person for this very difficult but rewarding position. The children are blessed to have you advocating for them.


Dec 25, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Yes - Residential schooling did alot of bad things. BUT I have 2x messages to give to survivors “Get Over It” and “Let It Go”. How long are you going to dwell in this misery? And affect others around you as well? How Long? Say
the Year 2525? Those affected got compensated (or their kids got paid).


Dec 29, 2009 at 3:48 pm

It’s nice to see a qualified person assume this role that also has the personal experience to be able to connect with today’s troubled youth.

Good luck Andy, I’m sure you will fulfill your position above and beyond.

We need more consideration into our youth in the Yukon because they are our future. I know many have snubbed this position but it’s very important. A hard childhood leads to a dangerous adult life, and the key is to help while they are still willing to accept the help offered.


Dec 29, 2009 at 7:41 pm

I will answer both of your questions with one answer. Residential school! The white man took us out of our homes where we were loved and put us into a place with a bunch of perverts who never had any children of their own and didn’t know anything at all about raising children. This isn’t about jails or prisoners, its about speaking up for our children. Our people, the parents weren’t allowed to speak up for us when they came and took us and now we have the chance to do it, maybe the next generation will not be in care or in jail because of this. And give Mr. Nieman a little credit for what he has accomplished in his life. He is not living off the welfare system and through the grace of God is coming forward despite the criticism of people like you, will speak up and defend our children. Don’t put him down like they did in residential school. If you are so concerned about native people in jail and children in care of the welfare then support this. It is for the benefit of our children, no matter their race or skin color.

Kailey Irwin

Dec 30, 2009 at 7:40 am

The horrors that FN children suffered at residential schools is terrible. Deep sufferring at a young age isn’t something you can just “Let Go” and money doesn’t always fix traumatization. I should’ve known you’d be along to input a blind and ignorant answer. Bravo! Before you think like that you may want to do a little research on psychology.

If you already knew your comment sounded racist then why post it? Seriously, the only reason why it may seem that FN comprise most of our inmates and troubled youth is because WE LIVE IN THE YUKON and the majority of our population is FN. I myself am not First Nations and yet I find offense to your short sighted point of view. Please do us a favour and put your foot in your mouth.

Kailey Irwin

Dec 31, 2009 at 7:15 am

Finally someone with some insight and understanding! I agree with you fully, children are the future and there are many youth in the Yukon who will benefit from having a system that actually cares about them. I think Mr. Nieman will do a fine job. Because of his personal life experiences I think he will succeed where others failed because he will be able to connect with and understand those he is helping.

I think alot of these negative people posting on here need to think more like you. :)


Dec 31, 2009 at 10:10 am

Kailey Irwin
Just a note on your response. The majority of our population is not First Nations. Only 21-25% of our population is of First Nation decent.


Dec 31, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Bravo Kailey. Thank you for your words. I am speaking as a first nation citizen and as a person who had 2 children taken away by the welfare system and both of them ended up being raised by a family member. My children are now grown and are not in jail, do not get into trouble with the law, are responsible hard working people. All this because I lucked out and had my family to help me. If more of our children were placed in responsible caring homes where the foster parent didn’t run down the biological parents faults, our children wouldn’t grow up to be lost adults. My children always knew about me, my name, who I was, where I was but not what I was really doing. When they asked about me, the foster parents simply told them that I was working somewhere and that I did think about them everyday and that I loved them more than anything on this earth. These words helped them grow to be healthy secure adults and when I was ready I started seeing them, spending time with them and now they all treat me as if I was never out of their life. This is what needs to happen to all the children that are in care. And I really believe Andy can accomplish this with some support from us. I am happy that someone is willing to take that first scary step and come forward to speak up for those that can’t speak up for themselves, that is the parents and children. I couldn’t speak up for my children or myself cuz i didn’t know how. Maybe alot of us are like that. In the end, this is for the kids.

Kailey Irwin

Jan 1, 2010 at 12:17 pm


Thank you. I think what everyone needs to do is reflect on the hardships that FN have suffered in the past and consider the fact that a little understanding can make all the difference.

Sorry for my miscalculations, I was never good at statistics. I think my main point is that there are many more successful FN persons in the Yukon than people give credit to. It seems to me that people only ever notice the crime and substance abuse, no one seems to realize that those people do not define a culture. They are the product of neglect and misunderstanding.

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