Jean Erasmus and Roy Erasmus are both Registered Professional Counsellors (RPC’s) with the Canadian Professional Counsellors association and are Rhodes Wellness College graduates of the college’s Professional Counselling program. Jean is Dene and Cree from Fort Chipewyan and Roy is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
Jean and Roy established a professional counselling service, called Dene Wellness Warriors, in Yellowknife in 2014, which quickly became known for the holistic healing it offered to Indigenous people. In 2016, Jean was designated by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to provide therapeutic services for Residential School Survivors and their families in the NWT. Roy received his designation in 2019.
In early 2019, Jean attended annual training hosted by ISC and was shocked to learn that she was the only Indigenous counsellor out of the 54 counsellors working with Indian Residential School Survivors and their families in the three territories. After learning this, Jean and Roy were determined to change this ratio, and to help other Indigenous people train to become certified counsellors.
A New Partnership: NIC
In May of 2019, Jean and Roy met with Ben Colling, President of Rhodes Wellness College, to determine if Dene Wellness Warriors and Rhodes could partner to train and certify other Indigenous counsellors to help their own people. Together they formed the Northern Indigenous Counselling (NIC) initiative.
In November of that year, Ben, Jean and Roy met in Yellowknife with the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) and Indigenous leaders to talk about how they could help NIC to train northern Indigenous counsellors. During the meetings, it was confirmed that the NIC students would be funded under the GNWT’s Student Financial Assistance program. The GNWT later confirmed funding to hire an Indigenous student coordinator.
By February 2020, the NIC program was on schedule to start recruiting students. In his capacity as a columnist with News North, Roy wrote about the program coming to Yellowknife. Immediately, the college and Dene Wellness Warriors were inundated with inquiries and interest. Cody Erasmus graduated from Rhodes’ Professional Counselling program in the spring and was hired as the Program Coordinator. He immediately helped students enroll and prepare for NIC to start in the fall of 2020.
A press release was issued announcing that NIC was moving forward. As news spread through the NWT, endorsements from Indigenous leaders helped create momentum and APTN and CBC wrote a story that was aired nationally. Enrollment numbers in the NIC program steadily increased.
‘It’s been beautiful’: N.W.T.-based counselling program prepares to graduate first cohort
16 students could soon qualify as Indigenous Services Canada-approved counsellors.
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. – Read full article here
Unique diploma counselling program to be offered in the N.W.T.
When Jean Erasmus trained with Indigenous Health Services she had one burning question.
“I asked them how many Indigenous counsellors there were in all three territories and they told me there were 54 counsellors, and I was the only indigenous one working with residential school survivors and their families and I thought ‘wow okay, there’s a need here,’” Erasmus said. – Read full article here
On September 28th, 2020 the NIC program began its first semester online with students knowing they would transfer to Yellowknife-based classes as soon as conditions allowed. A Feeding of the Fire ceremony and symbolic drum dance was held in the Yellowknives Dene First Nation community of Ndilo to formally start the program. APTN covered the celebration:
When the idea originated in 2019 to help Indigenous people to acquire professional counselling skills to help other Indigenous people, no one knew the devastation that Covid-19 would cause. People are now suffering in isolation due to Covid-19, causing mental illness challenges to rise. Now, the need for competent skilled counsellors is higher than ever. The NIC curriculum is an 1,800+ hour program that leads to professional counselling designations with both the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association (CPCA) and the Association of Cooperative Counselling Therapists in Canada (ACCT). The program is being run with the assistance of Dene Wellness Warriors. Dene Wellness Warriors offers counselling services through Indigenous Services Canada to help northerners battle and overcome mental and emotional health challenges.
NIC Program and Rhodes Wellness College
The NIC program teaches the curriculum and methodologies that Jean and Roy studied at Rhodes Wellness College. The program is successful due to its deeply experiential teaching methods. In most counselling training programs, students learn counselling methods through lecture and case studies in class, and then start to acquire practical skills in the field with actual clients after their schooling is over.
Indigenous Program Content and Recruitment
The Rhodes training program is based on the medicine wheel of emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical wellness, making it well-suited for Indigenous students. Still, Dene Wellness Warriors and Rhodes Wellness College realized northern contextualization was required. They utilized the assistance of Dr. Lois Edge, a well-known Metis post-secondary educator from Fort Smith, to add northern content to make the program more meaningful for northern students.
Rhodes Wellness College had taught its part-time counselling programs online since 2011 and utilized Zoom to do this since 2016. Additionally, by the fall of 2020 all Rhodes students in full-time programs were being effectively taught online via Zoom. Students and other observers realized that counselling training translated well to an online delivery when facilitated in small cohorts by skilled instructors, which is exactly how Rhodes was delivering its counselling programs online Faculty were able to facilitate effective role playing and conduct one on one training. When practicing their new skills, students were able to see their classmate’s close-up, and were able to help each other with greater empathy and efficacy. This made us confident we could accomplish the same if we took our NIC program online.
We were fearful of potentially poor internet connections in some of the eleven communities our students were living: Ulukhaktok, Tuktoyuktuk, Inuvik, Aklavik, Tlegohli, Whatì, Behchokǫ̀, Yellowknife, Hay River, Denı́nu Kų́ę́, and Fort Smith. We were also worried about the lack of technological know-how in some students, whose ages ranged from twenty-one to over sixty. However, the GNWT provided students with a technology grant through SFA, and we were able to ensure all students had good connectivity with the help of Northwestel.
Additionally, with a grant from H&SS, we were able to hire Cody Erasmus, our newly graduated Indigenous Program Coordinator living in Yellowknife. Cody spent many hours with each NIC student, mentoring and guiding them through their technical, physical, and emotional needs to ensure they were good to go!
On September 28, 2020, our students came together virtually, united in their purpose to commence their studies. The Yellowknives Dene First Nation drummers helped kicked off the program with prayers and drum songs. This now seems like a lifetime ago.
Our students have been stretched and pulled and have willingly stepped into every single challenge they have faced. This has been no small feat, since challenges they have had to face and overcome included:
- Community outbreaks of Covid-19
- School closures
- Financial hardship
- Family hardship
- Deaths to loved ones
- Extreme illnesses of those around them
- Difficult academic requirements
- An intensive schedule with few breaks
- They have been studying continuously since September 2020, with only a two-week summer break and a two-week winter break at Christmas.
- They attended class Monday to Friday from 10am – 2:30pm in their first four semesters and from 10am – 2pm in semesters five and six.
- They have now completed close to 1,400 hours of learning.
- Studies that have been primarily online with some in-person training in Yellowknife, when Covid-19 protocols and realities have allowed.
After being online for the first nine months, students moved from their communities to Yellowknife with their families, and stepped into our physical classroom in the summer of 2021 for the first time, only to return to online learning in late August due to a Covid-19 outbreak in Yellowknife. Fortunately, that subside enough to return to our classroom in October. Since then, students have had to again move online prior to resuming in-person classes at the start of February 2022. Despite having to navigate between online and in-person learning repeatedly, the students have all stepped into the changing formats with grace and professionalism. Their adaptability has astounded us and is a testament to the students’ perseverance and resilience.
We are on track with our original goal of graduating 14 students and have been incredibly impressed that despite all the challenges, students in the cohorthave been able to:
- complete 5.5 out of 6 semesters (to-date)
- achieve an overall average GPA of over 3.5 as a group
- achieve an overall attendance rate of over 90% as a group
We will be completing the program in May 2022 for most students. We will then launch our integration and deployment strategies to help our newly trained counsellors to assist Indigenous peoples in communities across the NWT.
Legislative Assembly in NWT
On March 31st 2022, the Northern Indigenous Counselling cohort was acknowledged at the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. This will be a permanent record in the Legislative Assembly Hansard.
Graduation at the Legislative Assembly in NWT on May 21st 2022
On May 21st 2022, the Northern Indigenous Counselling graduates had their graduation ceremony at the Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife.
For more information on the Northern Indigenous Counselling (NIC) program, please contact:
Dene Wellness Warriors
Telephone: (780) 983-5811
Rhodes Wellness College
Telephone: (604) 708-4416