‘It makes my heart proud.’ Indigenous counsellors celebrate graduation


There are now 15 more trained Indigenous counsellors in the Northwest Territories.

New graduates of the Northern Indigenous Counselling program, hailing from 11 communities across the territory, gathered at the Legislative Assembly on Saturday to celebrate their achievement. 

“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a really long time,” graduate Melissa Lennie told Cabin Radio. “When Covid hit and this program came out, it was a perfect opportunity to just finally do it.”

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Lennie, who is Inuvialuit from Inuvik, said she hopes to use what she has learned from the program to help people in the communities.

Graduate Louisa Alunik, who is also Inuvialuit, said she has long wanted to take this kind of program but hasn’t been able to until now.

Some of the graduates from the Northern Indigenous Counselling program. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

“A lot of people need help and that’s why I’m here,” she said. 

Lenny Fabian, from the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, said he also enrolled in the program with the aim of helping people in the territory. 

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“They’re all very proud,” he said of his family and community. “We don’t have any counsellors in our community, we have to hire from out of town, so they’re hoping to get me working in the community.” 

Fabian added he wanted to share a message to his people: “Be strong and learn about yourselves, learn about our people, and just talk to each other.”

Many graduates on Saturday spoke about how the program helped them not only prepare to help others but also with their own healing. Students were required to be sober for a full year before entering the program and worked on themselves throughout the program. 

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“What really got me was: everything that we’ve been through, our bodies remember. Our minds may have forgotten, but our bodies remember,” Alunik said of her biggest takeaway from the program.

“When I had to work on my past traumas, I had to work on my body. And now I can honestly say I’m good.” 

Jean Erasmus at the graduation ceremony. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
Roy Erasmus at the graduation ceremony. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

The two-year diploma program was created by Jean and Roy Erasmus, founders of Dene Wellness Warriors, in partnership with Rhodes Wellness College in BC. The initiative is the first of its kind to be offered in the North, and aims to increase the number of Indigenous counsellors in the territory.

In 2019, before the program began, Jean and Roy said of the 54 people approved by the federal government to provide counselling to residential school survivors in Canada, they were the only Indigenous counsellors. They hope this program will help to change that. 

“Today as we see the graduates – people working for their own people – addressing the people, it makes my heart proud,” Dettah Chief Edward Sangris said in a speech at the graduation ceremony.

“We need our own people to heal our people,” he continued. “Many times people ask me: ‘I don’t want to go down south to go to counselling, I want to stay home in the North, because when I go down south, the counsellors don’t understand our culture and our traditions.’” 

The Northern Indigenous Counselling program hopes to welcome its second cohort in September 2023.