Youth counselling program ‘not working’ in some NWT communities

The NWT government is speeding up an evaluation of its child and youth care counsellor program after regional wellness councils and education boards expressed concern.

Announced in 2018 with an estimated price tag of $7 million over four years, the program – known as CYCC – involved hiring more than 40 counsellors for elementary and high schools across the territory.

CYCC is now fully rolled out, but the deputy minister of the Department of Health and Social Services says concerns are being heard “loud and clear” and a gradual evaluation, scheduled over a period of years, will now take place far more quickly.


“The approach to the child and youth care counselling initiative is working in some areas but not necessarily working in others, or working to the intent,” Jo-Anne Cecchetto said at a meeting of the NWT health authority’s leadership council earlier this month.

“We had planned for an evaluation to happen later [but] through work with particularly the education leaders, we’ve been asked to move up the process around the evaluation. And so we are doing that.”

The Department of Health and Social Services told Cabin Radio the evaluation will span all of the territory’s regions and involve a youth advisory committee led by the Western Arctic Youth Collective. (More than 100 of the territory’s youth were also consulted prior to the program’s original rollout.)

The evaluation will “assess the expectations of the program and baseline needs of children and youth, and how it was implemented in schools and communities,” a department spokesperson said by email, and will assess the extent to which “the program has improved access to mental health and wellness counselling for students, youth, and families.”

A final report is expected in August this year, and the department said the intention was to make any necessary changes in time for the 2023-24 academic year.


‘The process wasn’t working’

Critics of the CYCC program say the idea of counsellors in every school, paid for centrally, was exciting at first – but let down by its implementation.

Ted Blondin, chair of the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, said departments in Yellowknife ended up having the final say in situations where local school principals were almost certainly better positioned to make decisions.

“Over time, it became very clear that the process wasn’t working,” Blondin said at the same leadership council meeting.

“If there was a problem, they had to deal with headquarters in Yellowknife, and they were making decisions in Yellowknife. That’s where the problems started.


“We all know that none of our schools are the same. They’re all different. And each of our principals, each of our teachers know that. It only made sense, over time, that if there was a problem … it was the principal [that] had more information on the family unit and how it operated in the community.”

Muaz Hassan, chair of the Dehcho Regional Wellness Council, said: “For me, the CYCC? If you asked me for Fort Simpson, I would close it tomorrow.”

Hassan said the model may work for Yellowknife or Hay River but did not fit smaller Dehcho communities. Blondin said Tłı̨chǫ communities were in some cases already relying on alternative solutions.

“In our region now, we have peer groups made up of local people to bridge the gap,” Blondin said.

“Students are more in the mood, in their minds, of dealing with somebody local, who speaks the language, who is more knowledgeable about the community, and is more comfortable talking to them about the problems, and can hook them up with some professional. That seems to work a lot better.”

He also criticized the NWT’s effort to prioritize recruiting counsellors with a master’s degree in a related field. “Counsellors coming in from god-knows-where” were undoubtedly professional, Blondin said, but “they don’t know the culture, they don’t know the community, they don’t know the students, the families, the issues.”

“We do recognize we don’t quite have this right across the territory,” said Cecchetto in response. “Hence the reason the evaluation is happening quicker than intended.”

The Department of Health and Social Services said lessons from the evaluation – which has already begun – would be implemented as they come in, rather than waiting until any fixed future date.

“We have agreement between both entities to work on improving the things that we are doing and reviewing things earlier in time,” said Cecchetto, “so that in the next school year we actually have implemented any changes that needed to occur.”