A unique programme that aims to bridge traditional native healing and contemporary psychological counselling has been launched from a university on the Canadian prairies, writes Philip Fine.
The first-nations and aboriginal counselling degree offered by Brandon University in Manitoba was born in 1998 out of a decades-old call for more counsellors who could understand the particular needs of indigenous peoples. Various Canadian institutions, from women's shelters to community colleges and from correctional centres to old-age homes, have been increasingly open to bringing in indigenous traditions.
Counselling could mean being able to speak the clients' mother tongue, perform a ritual that might put a client at ease or simply being aware of some of the sociocultural distinctions of the particular community.
Counsellor Cecil Roulette, a 33-year-old Ojibway who graduated from the Brandon programme in 2001, offers native counselling and cultural consulting to a local community college with a large number of indigenous students. "Many people are starting to find their way back to the culture," he says.
Some of them are offspring of natives taken from their parents and educated in Church-run institutions called residential schools. But just because his young clients might want to reacquaint themselves with their cultures does not mean he can just foist rituals on to them. As in other kinds of counselling, he says, they have to be willing before he decides to introduce native custom.
After getting to know a student client, who may have come with a problem related to studies or displacement from home, Roulette will, if the student is comfortable, go to his clay bowl and light up some sage or sweet grass for a ritual called a "smudge". The practice was developed to clear the mind and prepare a person to speak, something very helpful in getting people to make the first step in working out their problems.
The smell in his office afterwards also ends up lingering in a lounge next door, which many students visit to enjoy a scent that evokes a homely feeling.
Jean Graveline, director of the Brandon programme, says the training that graduates receive prepares them for two worlds.
The curriculum straddles the contemporary and traditional, including classes such as traditional spiritual teachings, persistent mental-health challenges for first nations, principles of family counselling, and ethical and legal issues.