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Effective Practices for Counselling Indigenous People

As a counsellor, you work with the whole client and not just a person’s employment or education needs. This means understanding the challenges associated with being a member of a distinct cultural group, as well as the personal challenges faced by each client.

You may want to draw from multicultural counselling approaches, as well as from approaches that connect with Indigenous traditions.

Characteristics of effective counsellors

Counsellors who work best with Indigenous clients:

  • Recognize and respect the distinctions and diversity among First Nations, Métis, and Inuit
  • Are bicultural, either having First Nations, Métis, or Inuit ancestry or a deep knowledge of Indigenous culture and world views
  • Present themselves in an informal, friendly, interested, respectful, and trustworthy way
  • Are accessible—tend to use a drop-in and quick-response approach rather than appointments
  • Build and maintain a network of contacts (parents, band officials, Elders, Knowledge Keepers, Indigenous role models, other helpers) in the Indigenous community and take part in community affairs, such as sports, ceremonies, and feasts
  • Use a holistic and culturally relevant approach
  • Understand trauma-informed care, particularly as it relates to the family and community legacies of the residential school system

In addition, counsellors should have the capacity to respond to a wide range of needs, such as:

  • Cross-band rivalries
  • Cultural demands and practices
  • Discrimination and racial conflict and bias
  • In-school adjustment
  • Interactions with the criminal justice system
  • Intergenerational trauma
  • Lifestyle and cultural identity issues
  • Loss and grieving
  • Poverty
  • Sexual abuse
  • Spirituality
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicide
  • Transitions
  • Violence

Communicating with Indigenous clients

Counsellors need strong communication skills, including listening, synthesizing information, paraphrasing, and responding to meaning and feeling. Of these skills, listening may be the most important when working with Indigenous clients. Indigenous people may pause longer before responding. Try to become comfortable with periods of silence as your clients reflect on the discussion.

First build trust—"Take long enough to get to know the person. It may be hard for some [Indigenous] people to open up. Take time to build trust. Find out what challenges clients face. Ask clients—don’t make assumptions. Get to the core of personal challenges. Point people to appropriate resources. It’s very important to help clients identify and address personal challenges prior to dealing with employment."

Take the time to build trust and rapport with your clients. Some clients may tell you about personal issues that they are experiencing. If you aren’t sure, you can ask the following questions:

  • Do you have any concerns regarding your family?
  • Are there some things in your background that you haven’t had a chance to deal with?
  • How can we help you with that?
  • Who might you go to for help with that?

Being in treatment is not uncommon for clients. If clients are in professional counselling or in treatment at the same time as career counselling, you may want to discuss the situation. Sometimes making progress in career planning or work search can have a positive effect on addressing personal issues. If clients are not in professional counselling but would benefit from additional support, you can provide referrals to community resources, such as Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and community agencies.

Multicultural counselling approach

Because Indigenous clients are a minority of the dominant population, it is useful to draw from multicultural counselling theory. In the multicultural counselling approach, counsellors must be competent in 3 dimensions: self-awareness, knowledge of other world views, and counselling skills.


Culturally aware counsellors focus on their own belief system by:

  • Examining their own assumptions on human behaviour, values, biases, preconceived notions, and personal limitations
  • Becoming aware of their own world view
  • Understanding how their own cultural experiences relate to their beliefs and attitudes
  • Examining how their own world view impacts their interactions with Indigenous clients

Be aware that your cultural background may, at times, result in your beliefs and world views contrasting with those of your clients. Professional reflection about personal culture helps to develop self-awareness. This is a core competency in the domain of multicultural counselling.

Knowledge of other world views

To broaden your own world view, try to:

  • Understand the world views of Indigenous clients without making negative judgments
  • Respect and appreciate the world views of Indigenous clients
  • Accept client world views as a legitimate perspective

There are many ways to learn about other world views. For example:

  • Be open to clients and learn from them
  • Talk to career counsellors who are experienced in the field
  • Attend workshops or training events
  • Seek out and learn from resources in the community
  • Read books, journal articles, and websites

Counselling skills

You can build culturally aware skills by:

  • Practising appropriate, relevant, and sensitive intervention strategies and skills
  • Acknowledging the cultural values and life experiences of clients
  • Incorporating the values of clients into the counselling process, as appropriate

Distinctions-based approach

While a pan-Indigenous approach to services is common, it is important to remember that each of the 3 major Indigenous peoples has distinct cultural practices, identities, historical experiences, and current realities. There is significant diversity, even within those groupings. First Nations in Alberta fall under 3 different treaties, for instance. Within those treaties, each band has a unique identity.

Distinctions-based approaches are particularly important for Métis people and non-status Indians, due to longstanding jurisdictional issues as to which level of government is responsible for their care. As a result, they often don’t have the same access to services as their First Nations and Inuit counterparts. Since 2003, successive Supreme Court rulings have decided that the Government of Canada has a similar duty to Métis people and non-status Indians as it does to First Nations and Inuit. However, many government services continue to be built around the First Nations experience (requiring proof of Indian status, for example), which can pose a challenge when referring clients.

Strength-based approach

Before looking for work—"It’s so important to be aware of issues and concerns of clients and to know how to address concerns. When the expected outcome is employment, time is an issue, but we are setting people up if we don’t help them deal with their personal concerns first. If they are not job-market-ready, then we need to help them with that, then move to employment."

The strength-based approach is also known as solution-focused counselling. It involves asking questions to prompt clients to identify strengths. Because self-esteem and self-confidence are, in many cases, challenging for Indigenous clients, asking the following questions may be helpful:

  • Survival questions: Given what you have gone through in your life, how have you managed to survive so far?
  • Support questions: What people have given you special understanding, support, and guidance?
  • Possibility questions: What are your hopes, visions, and aspirations?
  • Esteem questions: When people say good things about you, what are they likely to say?
  • Exception questions: When things were going well in your life, what was different?

These questions can be woven throughout the career-building process. They help clients focus on the positive aspects of their lives as they move forward.

Connecting with Indigenous traditions

Having cultural knowledge and an understanding of traditional methods is important in retaining Indigenous identity. A number of Indigenous traditions can be used in counselling. Underlying these methods are 3 levels of empowerment:

  • Intrapersonal. These methods aim to enhance self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Interpersonal. These methods aim to construct knowledge and social analysis based on experiences shared with others.
  • Community. These methods aim to use resources and strategies for personal and collective benefit.

Importance of healing—"Healing is something many Indigenous peoples work toward. For many, it is dealing with history, loss of culture, change of lifestyle, and the force of systems. Some approaches individuals may choose to promote healing include: Healing circles, Healing camps, Sun dances, Discussions with Elders, Treatment by physicians who incorporate natural approaches and who are knowledgeable about Indigenous culture."

You may suggest that clients explore traditional symbols and approaches. It will be important to confirm with clients that particular approaches are relevant and meaningful. 2 examples of these levels of empowerment are the medicine wheel and the sharing circle. Although the medicine wheel and sharing circle may be less meaningful to Métis clients, any Indigenous person may relate in different degrees to the use of Indigenous traditions.

Medicine wheel

Medicine is defined as something that affects your well-being, and wheel is the circle inside which everything is connected and can change direction. The medicine wheel symbolizes completeness and interdependence and represents the circle of life. It also represents the balance that exists among all things.

The teachings of the medicine wheel are a way of life and include the 4 aspects of human development: mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional. The concept helps clients to focus on the whole self in order to make realistic choices and decisions. This is a useful tool to use in career planning, problem solving, and action planning.

Sharing circle

The healing circle or talking circle is often referred to as a sharing circle. The group forms a circle where participants share personal experiences and talk about hopes for individual and shared change as a means of working through personal issues and resolving problems. This traditional practice is often used by First Nations facilitators, especially Elders. Social support provided in sharing circles is important to individuals in that it empowers group members and creates knowledge that change can happen.

Helping Indigenous clients with education

Statistics show that education is a critical factor in employment success. Education and training are the keys to increased employment.

Many adult Indigenous people have not completed secondary education. In order to complete the post-secondary training required to enter many occupations, Indigenous clients may need to:

  • Repeat or upgrade their secondary education
  • Compete to enter programs for which quotas exist and entrance requirements are rising
  • Prepare for long periods of extensive study
Embracing Learning as a Mature College Student (2:39)

Shawn attends a public college as a mature student. Watch as he discusses his experience upgrading his high school marks and becoming involved in activities related to his Indigenous cultural activities.

You can help clients prepare for remedial secondary and post-secondary education by making sure they are aware of:

  • Various post-secondary institutions’ non-matriculated student policies
  • The availability of programs in each institution
  • The institutions’ acceptance of adult upgrading programs
  • The format and flexibility of programs at both the adult upgrading and post-secondary level
  • Flexible policies that may allow them to complete a program with fewer restrictions and a higher rate of success
Attending College as the Key to Success (2:29)

Joel is an Indigenous student attending a public college. Learn more about his experience moving from a rural town to the city, becoming involved in student groups, and getting to know his professors.

Indigenous clients who have not seen students facing the challenges of a post-secondary program may not have a clear picture of the commitment and work required. Talking with a role model will help to make sure they don’t underestimate the challenges involved. Connect them to Indigenous student groups and support networks at their school.

Balancing School and Family at an Indigenous Peoples College (2:48)

Teneille is studying to be a nurse at an Indigenous Peoples College. Learn about her experience balancing home and academic life while studying in a small classroom setting.

Many programs are now available that focus on providing Indigenous people with opportunities to gain skills through education and training. Alberta Indigenous Relations works with industry, Indigenous groups, and provincial departments to develop partnerships to enhance training, employment, and business opportunities for Indigenous people.

Increasingly, companies are encouraged to participate in co-op, summer placements, mentorships, internships, and apprenticeship programs that provide opportunities for Indigenous students to have hands-on experience. Many industries involved in developing new business projects are now required to give back to affected communities. Partnerships between private and public sector organizations that provide employment and training to Indigenous people are becoming more common.

Eligibility and funding for training and education

Program eligibility and funding guidelines vary from program to program. Because eligibility and funding issues can be particularly complex, counsellors have a responsibility to help clients understand what programs they may or may not qualify for. It is also very important for counsellors to understand the differences between First Nations, Métis, and Inuit in order to help clients with the self-identification process, if necessary.

The following are some criteria that may affect program and funding eligibility:

  • Residency for First Nations individuals (whether they live on or off reserve)
  • Status for First Nations individuals (whether they are status or non-status)
  • Self-identification for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit individuals (identifying the Indigenous group they are a member of—some clients may not be sure which group they belong to)

Becoming a student involves expenses. These include the cost of the program, commuting or moving, taking up a different residence (rent), and basic living expenses. Both the status of Indigenous clients and their planned program of study influence the financial support that might be available. It is important for counsellors to be aware of:

  • Funding opportunities for Indigenous students from Indigenous Services Canada and individual Nations
  • Sponsorship programs at both the federal and provincial level
  • Scholarships and bursaries
  • Current student aid policies

Timelines for training and education

Timelines are another significant consideration for clients planning to enter education and training programs and to apply for funding. Many programs require applications well in advance of start dates—in some cases, up to 1 year. You are in a position to help clients understand the importance of these timelines and to help clients plan to meet them. As entrance to various programs becomes more competitive, clients must become extra diligent in the application process.

Alternatives to full-time education

Attending University to Become a Teacher (2:55)

Coby is studying at a university to become a teacher. She discusses her Indigenous background, how she enjoys interacting with other students, and the different sources of funding she used to help pay for her education.

While continuing their education will be of great benefit to clients, the traditional approach of full-time, on-site attendance may not be the best choice. Clients should become aware of the different approaches that are available to them:

  • Part-time, evening, and weekend studies allow students to maintain ongoing family and work responsibilities.
  • Distance learning or correspondence, including internet-based schooling, allows students to study without moving to a new location.
  • Co-operative education programs, including internships or work experience, combine classroom or distance learning studies with hands-on experience.
  • Apprenticeship programs combine formalized on-the-job training, classroom instruction, and standardized examinations.
  • Short-term courses focus on specific skill development.

Providing supports for Indigenous students

Building Career Skills at an Indigenous Peoples College (2:48)

Sam is a student at an Indigenous Peoples College. He discusses his experience working with a team, studying in a supportive environment, and using education to enhance his career.

A challenge following enrolment is to provide an environment where Indigenous people can be successful. Loneliness or lack of a support network may cause students to drop out and not complete their course of studies. Many Indigenous people are still experiencing poverty that has mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical effects on them and, therefore, their possibility of success.

Strengthening Indigenous students—"When Aboriginal students enter post-secondary institutions, it is important to connect with them early. They need to know someone cares about them being successful. Some institutions foster a sense of community by providing a place for Aboriginal students to connect with each other, meet with Elders, hold sweet grass ceremonies, and access computers."

To increase student retention, educational institutions provide instruction and support in a variety of ways. Some post-secondary institutions have:

  • Developed courses taught from an Indigenous perspective and by Indigenous instructors
  • Scheduled regular social events, including smudge ceremonies, feasts, and student council meetings
  • Employed Indigenous liaison staff
  • Sponsored cultural centres that provide group support and inclusive activities, especially for rural and off-reserve students

Indigenous community resource list

A resource list of people, agencies, and programs that assist Indigenous people is a useful tool. Consider creating a list and updating it on an ongoing basis. A comprehensive list of resources will include the following:

  • Community networking. Contact information for colleagues and supervisors.
  • Employment centres. Contact information for local Indigenous, provincial, and federal employment centres.
  • Government departments and agencies. Contact information for government departments and agencies, including federal government departments such as Indigenous Services Canada. Provincial departments of Indigenous affairs, human resources, education and social services, as well as municipal social service agencies, may also be helpful.
  • Native Friendship Centres. Contact information for Native Friendship Centres, which are often involved in lobbying, liaising with government departments, undertaking advisory tasks, and preparing proposals for government programs. Staff members are excellent sources of information.
  • Online and print resources. Magazines and newspapers (local, Indigenous, national), directories, databases, catalogues, websites of organizations, published research and articles, and relevant social media.

The Government of Alberta actively maintains a guide to Indigenous organizations and services.

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