From My Perspective – Employment and Ethnicity

Now that I’m in my 4th year of studies, I often browse through employment ads to get an idea of options in the field of psychology. Yesterday, while looking through the Government of Alberta job site I noticed a job entitled, Addictions Counsellor. The position offers counselling for aboriginal inmates serving sentences at the Edmonton Maximum Security Facility. I’ve always been interested in native culture and in the specific emotional and psychological difficulties that face indigenous people in this country, difficulties that often lead to addictions and self-destructive behaviour. To my surprise, however, I discovered that I would not be eligible for this particular job. Why? The ad further states, “re-ferral must be aboriginal in origin.” My initial response was, is this not discriminatory? If the ad said, “must be white male,” surely other ethnic groups and feminists would be speaking out against this practice as racist!

I recall last year looking through listings on the Government of Canada website (, and being surprised at the large number of opportunities that were only open to aboriginal applicants. The explanation given was “as this position will be staffed through the aboriginal employment program (AEP), only aboriginal persons can be considered.” While I am in agreement that an employment initiative funded for the benefit of a specific disadvantaged group should be limited to the support of only that group, I was still uncomfortable with the overall concept of making one’s racial origin a job requirement.

In the case of the Addictions Counsellor job, there is no indication that it is being funded through a program targeting native employment initiatives. It appears to me that since the clients requiring counselling are of aboriginal descent, perhaps the assumption is that a counsellor can only do a proper job if they too are of the same ethnic background. But is this true?

Certainly cultural identity is an integral part of who we are, and by extension true understanding of an individual’s problems would require close familiarity with that person’s culture. Many health and public service professions recognize this, and offer multi-cultural support services to enable more productive relationships whether it be policing, nursing, or counselling. We can take this yet another step and add the question of gender – I doubt many would argue the importance of gender dynamics in the successful completion of certain types of jobs. For example, many women are uncomfortable with a male doctor or a male counsellor, and the reverse is often true for men as well.

Psychology 343 (Issues and Strategies in Counselling Women) approaches this topic from a strongly feminist stance, advocating female-to-female counselling as being essential in many circumstances, especially those involving sexual abuse or incest. The course also addresses issues of working with women in native communities. These issues include above average rates of violence, alcoholism and drug abuse, physical and sexual violence, and the legacy of residential schools. Therapist Maggie Hodgson strongly advocates therapy techniques that incorporate native culture, but acknowledges a further difficulty faced by many aboriginal societies – that of silence.1 In speaking of sexual abuse she states, “a primary difficulty that Native care givers have in dealing with abuse disclosures and reports is that they are often relatives of the abusers.” As a result, there is immense social pressure from the extended family for the victim to remain silent due to potential legal consequences against family members.

An article in the January 10/02 Edmonton Journal ( highlights this, reporting on a court case involving members of the Horse Lake reserve in which “eight men, ranging in age from 34 to 82, were charged with more than 50 sex-related charges. The offences range from sexual touching to indecent exposure, from intercourse with minors to rape.”2 The victims were as young as 9 years old, and the perpetrators were “uncles, fathers and grandfathers,” and included former Chief Robert Horseman. These young girls grew up believing this was normal, a way for families to show affection, that native people were “just different.” It was not until decades later that one of these girls, after years of struggling with addictions and turmoil, came to the realization that this “had to stop” and finally found the courage to come forward.

The offenders have received no jail time because all involved; victims, abusers and the legal system; have recognized the need to “untangle generations of inappropriate sexual behaviour.” Restorative justice that builds on the strengths of the family bonds within native communities is preferred to revenge, prison and banishment, and the goal is to “knit the community back together again”

Assisting in this process is James Yellowknee, a 54-year-old Cree from Wabasca who himself emerged from a destructive cycle of abuse and addictions to become a trained counsellor, and now travels to native communities to help guide them towards recovery. RCMP Sgt. Dave MacKay supports these initiatives, and suggested that non-native people might learn from the approach that focuses on long-term needs for community healing.

Obviously then, a counsellor who has a close understanding of the needs of this particular type of community would have an advantage. But is it an absolute requirement that any such counsellor be aboriginal? I don’t think so. Empathy and mutual understanding is not inborn, but learned. Shared experiences and compassion transcends cultural boundaries. I consider myself empathetic and understanding of cultural differences, and I’m learning effective ways to assist those who are in psychological distress, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Culture and anthropology studies, as well as opportunities to live and work within different cultural groups, also provide a wealth of understanding and awareness to enhance qualifications. Not to be overlooked is the fact that often an outside perspective is highly valuable in gaining a balanced viewpoint of a matter, and the ability to take a dispassionate, unbiased look at a problem can be the first step towards successful problem resolution. Differences can be strengths.

Should my career choices be limited to serving only white, Canadian-born women of a certain age group that fits my own demographics? Absolutely not. While I may be able to closely identify with their experience, I am not; nor should I be; limited by it. I wholeheartedly endorse any initiatives that train aboriginal people as counsellors, doctors, nurses, and police officers. I think aboriginal workers can bring a closely shared perspective to their clients that can be of immense benefit. At the same time, I do not think that because I’m non-native I cannot bring a service of great benefit in these areas. To limit a job to only persons of certain ancestry is not only discriminatory, but it can be detrimental to all involved – increasing barriers rather than building trust, and depriving all of us of the opportunity to learn and grow in mutual understanding.

Next week: The Horse Lake Reserve land settlement & Accountability

(1) Laidlaw, Malmo and Associates, 1990. “Shattering the Silence: Working with Violence in
Native Communities” by Maggie Hodgson. In Healing Voices. Jossey-Bass Publishers
(2) Edmonton Journal, January 10, 2002. “I Just Wanted Things to be Better”. Lisa Gregoire,

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