For Jean Erasmus, a quick glance at the list of counsellors working for Indigenous Services in the North was all it took to inspire change.
Jean and her husband Roy Erasmus are certified counsellors who own Dene Wellness Warriors, which offers health and wellness support for Indigenous people.
"I noticed that at Indigenous Services Canada, where residential school trauma counselling is offered, of 54 counselors in the three territories, Roy and I were the only Aboriginal counsellors."
Now, three years later, 16 Indigenous students are about to graduate — in the N.W.T. — from an adapted version of the same program they graduated from in Vancouver six years ago.
In 2019, they approached their alma mater, Rhodes Wellness College in Vancouver, about adapting the program.
The first cohort began Monday to Friday classes, starting in September 2020. After six back-to-back semesters, the students will have received 800 hours of training, and practical experience working with clients.
When they graduate they will be qualified to take a certification exam from the Canadian Professionals Counsellors Association.
The 16 Indigenous students in the program came from 11 different communities and range in age from 20 to 60.
'It's been beautiful'
Lynsie Marie Auger was born in Yellowknife, but her dad is Anishinaabe Ojibwe from Northern Ontario.
She wanted to go to Rhodes Wellness College but she couldn't afford to move to Vancouver. So the timing was perfect for her when the program started in Yellowknife.
Auger said she's been on her own recovery journey from addictions, and now she wants to help others.
"It's been beautiful. I've really grown into the woman that I'm supposed to be because of this program," Auger said.
The pandemic forced a lot of the training online, which Auger said was challenging, but they were able to take a course on physical wellness, and grief and dying in person.
She said she now has the tools to take care of herself, and also be a good counsellor.
Need for Indigenous counsellors
Jean said the counsellors brought in by Indigenous Services were well-trained in western therapeutic approaches, but didn't have the same life experience as their clients.
"What we're being told by our clients is that it's difficult, often, to make a good connection with those people," Roy added. "Because a lot of times they don't stay very long … and they don't know what it's like to live in the communities."
The new program teaches western approaches to therapy, but it's been adapted to meet the needs Indigenous counselling students in the Northwest Territories.
Roy's son Cody Erasmus, who also graduated from Rhodes Wellness College, has been in every class, acting as a facilitator and helping adjust the curriculum. He said he worked with each of the instructors to make the curriculum and classroom interactions more relevant and safe for Indigenous students.
The Rhodes training model has the students experience therapeutic techniques they're learning about.
Jean says that's important.
"We need our people to be counselling our people, and we wanted them to be healthier. So that's why having them clean and sober and healing themselves while getting the expert training was really, really important," she said.
College president Ben Colling said the results speak for themselves.
He said two of their students have been asked repeatedly to help out with the Salvation Army's addiction recovery program in Yellowknife.
"The centre managers said that they had never seen their clientele open up to the same extent that they did during those sessions," he said.
Colling said there's been support for the program from the territorial government (Health and Social Services and Education) for everything from financial assistance for the students, to the salary for the program coordinator's position.
The students will start their practicums in March, and by the time they graduate in May, they will be eligible to write a qualifying exam to become members of the Canadian Professional Counselors Association.
Roy said it's exciting to know there will be more Indigenous counsellors in the communities going forward, who can bring their knowledge and experience of things like the healing value of the land to their practice.
"You don't have to necessarily be sitting in your office to have your session," he said
"You could go sit by the river, or the lake or even for a walk."