Why would anyone become a social worker?

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Fri Oct 08 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

For 37 years, Ben Carniol has tried to send his students out into the world with the skills to improve people’s lives and resilience to do their best in hostile conditions.

The Ryerson professor of social work knows they’ll have to cut corners and make demoralizing choices. They’ll be hamstrung by rigid rules and burned-out bosses. They’ll be judged on their paperwork, not their compassion or dedication. And they’ll be blamed for the failure of the social system to reduce poverty, cut crime and push welfare recipients into the workforce. And they’ll be accused by their clients of being heartless, stingy and patronizing.

But he also knows that, even in mean-spirited times, social workers can make a difference. He’s seen it. He’s done it.

Carniol, 72, has been a caseworker, manager and teacher. He has watched the pendulum swing from the optimistic, creative phase of the ’60s and ’70s to the pinched, punitive phase of the last 15 years.

He has learned that, even when things look bleakest, social movements are bubbling up that will crack open the status quo.

In 1987, Carniol wrote a book entitled Case Critical, chronicling the state of Canada’s social services. He gave his treatise a human face using first-hand reports from the field.

At the behest of his publisher, he wrote a second edition in 1990, then a series. This week, Carniol released volume six at the Native Canadian Centre in downtown Toronto. It was a day of celebration and commiseration, a chance for social workers to come together, focus on the big picture and share their frustrations and breakthroughs.

Carniol kicked off the gathering by telling his own story. He chose a career in social work 50 years ago. He hoped to use the loss and dislocation in his life — his parents were killed in Holocaust, he spent three years as a foster child in Belgium and found a sense of belonging when a Canadian aunt adopted him — to help others experiencing hardship.

He knew when he enrolled in social work at McGill University he’d never be rich, but he was grateful he’d found a way to do something useful and meaningful. Most of his students over the decades have been driven by their own version of altruism.

He urged his audience to hang onto that altruism, no matter how out-of-fashion it is, how the politicians and pundits ridicule it and how the system stifles it. “The core value of caring provides us with the resilience to hang in there even under the most adverse conditions.”

Then he related some of the stories he had collected.

One came from a social worker at a child protection agency in western Canada. On her third day, she heard a colleague cursing — “that stupid, f—ing bitch” — as she pored over a client’s file. The newcomer was appalled. “But within a month, I was talking the same.”

Another came from a client of the Canadian Mental Health Association. “I feel happy and proud. I’ve learned coping methods that have helped me a lot from my social workers. I haven’t been in hospital for two years.”

The 180-page book pulls together facts, figures and interviews, offering social workers a reality check and concerned citizens a look inside Canada’s troubled social service agencies.

Carniol doesn’t know whether there will be a seventh edition of Case Critical. He is busy teaching social work to aboriginal students at First Nations Technical Institute (which has a partnership with Ryerson) and exploring the links between environmental degradation, militarism and deepening inequality.

His scope is broadening, he says. But he’s not slowing down, mellowing or giving up on the humanity of Canadians.

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