At 60 years old, Billy Archie says he’s still learning how to be of service as an Elder.
With the advent of the Truth and Reconciliation movement, he says he was inspired to take on a new career and learn new skills to become a community leader.
Later this month, Archie will become one of 15 students, representing 11 NWT communities, in the first graduating class of the Northern Indigenous Counselling initiative.
The program is the initiative of Jean and Bill Erasmus, therapists and certified life coaches who founded the counselling company Dene Wellness Warriors. Jean Erasmus says the idea for the program came out of her experience offering emotional support at an event hosted by Indigenous Services Canada in 2019. “Out of all three territories, there were 54 counselors, and I was the only Indigenous one,” she says.
“And so I said, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a gap here. There’s a need for Indigenous counselors.’”
The Erasmuses decided to bring to the North the Professional Counselling Diploma program of Rhodes Wellness college, where they both studied. Roy Erasmus says he especially wanted to carry over the experiential component of the Rhodes program. “Every technique that you learn, you go through yourself,” he says. “And so you’re working on yourself all the way through for all six semesters of the program. So we said, we really liked that aspect, because we’re a lot healthier when we finished than when we started.”
Burnice Mandeville, a student from Fort Resolution, says she recommends the program not just for those looking to enter counselling, but for those who want to learn to deal with their own traumas. “The instructors are very patient and professional; They made us feel welcome and safe,” she says.
Jean Erasmus says the students have undergone a profound personal transformation throughout the course. “I saw big, big changes in their development, in their self esteem,” she says.
The 18-month program was highly intensive, with students only getting breaks at Christmas and over the summer, totalling just six weeks. Although almost 50 students applied, the limitations imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic meant numbers were cut down significantly.
Archie says the last 18 months have been emotionally taxing, listening to the stories of survivors and their descendants.
“A lot of the trauma’s so real,” he says.
Archie’s connection to these traumas is highly personal.
“Growing up at the time when the first survivors were really trying to hide the pain or deal with the pain, and there was no resources there for them, suicide really impacted me,” he said. “A few people close to me committed suicide, so it was something I eventually dealt with in this program.”
Archie says he’s particularly interested in eco therapy, which uses nature as its main tool. “Get them back on the land, and hear the birds singing again, eating fresh fish out of the net, and all that. Like, really get them grounded.”
Jean Erasmus says many of the incoming graduates are already getting job offers; Most of them will be returning to their home communities to work, and all of them will be staying in the North.
“I think there’s eleven communities who will be benefiting from from these new graduates,” she says.
Jean Erasmus says the next round of the program will be trauma-focused. “We were noticing that that’s what’s really needed in the Northwest Territories, in our communities,” she says.
Although Archie is grateful for the work the Erasmuses have done to create the program, he says there’s still much more work that needs to be done in the communities. “Let’s get these damn wellness programs done, and let’s focus on stumbling blocks to get people healthy again, both mentally and physically.”