Counsellling grads the 'bridge' between Aboriginal and Western healing

- Patty Pitts

For years, Lorna Williams had heard about and seen certified counsellors arriving in First Nations communities without the proper preparation and knowledge to work effectively and respectfully with their Aboriginal clients. In frustration, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning searched for a better way to educate counsellors in both Indigenous and Western approaches to emotional and psychological healing. The result was the UVic-developed master’s program in counselling for Aboriginal communities—the first of its kind in the country—and 15 of the inaugural program graduates receive their degrees this month.

“This is a program that UVic can be so proud of,” says Williams who worked together with counsellor educator Anne Marshall, the director of the Centre for Youth and Society, and an advisory committee of faculty, professionals and Aboriginal community members to envision the process the led to the new program. “It’s a weaving together of what we know from the Western world and what we know about healing in the Aboriginal world.”

Williams was impressed with the UVic Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies’ community-based program in counselling psychology and approached Marshall about adapting it for Aboriginal needs.

“While it has the same courses as our existing counselling program, it’s enhanced and also has a different delivery model,” says Marshall. “We had to be really flexible and had to be very creative. We delivered the program in a cohort model. This was important for trust and relationship building—two essential elements for working successfully in Aboriginal communities.”

The all-female cohort of students was also working in the community. “They are carrying a lot of responsibility. A couple are close to being elders themselves,” says Marshall.

The cohort is not entirely Aboriginal. “Having two non-Indigenous students in the program was planned and turned out beautifully,” says Williams. “They were ready for it and open to the class materials and experience.”

The cohort met in different Aboriginal territories as well as in UVic’s First Peoples House. Local program material was integrated into the communities they visited. When the students met, they began and ended their classes with prayer and song, always sat in a circle and were always mindful of Aboriginal protocols. Their final oral exams and research project posters were presented to family and community members in First Peoples House.

Tooie Casavant, a UVic BEd graduate and a member of the Hupacasath First Nation, waited 11 years for the graduate program to be developed. “There is a great need in our communities for a style of counselling that will work for our people. The Westernized approach has not been successful for many of our people and they end up not getting the counselling they were seeking. Often I heard people saying they had to educate the counsellor before treatment even started.”

For her program practicum, Casavant designed and implemented a strengthening program for women affected by residential school trauma. “I ended up guiding three different groups of women on this part of their journey. My own life experiences and the realization that my mother’s residential school experiences greatly impacted my life were the motivation behind designing the program. To bear witness to the transformations in the women was absolutely amazing!

“I truly envisioned our cohort as the ‘rainbows’ that would bridge between the [Aboriginal and Western] worlds. One of the best things about this program for me was my own personal growth and transformation as I began to understand the traditional knowledge that I carry is valuable and important.”

Interest in a follow-up to the program is high. There’s already a lengthy waiting list of potential students, and Marshall and Williams are in active discussions to secure funding to admit a second program cohort in 2012.

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Keywords: counselling, Indigenous

People: Lorna Williams

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