Indigenous Insights for All Counsellors

The following excerpt comes from our book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The chapter reviews the 10 principles from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Readers are invited and challenged to reflect and apply these principles into their own life and in their work with families.

While this chapter focuses on Indigenous peoples and is written from a Canadian context, specifically highlighting the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission principles, I believe the information presented is relevant to countries throughout the world that have Indigenous populations.

First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and American Indian families across Turtle Island have experienced significant losses and change from colonization over the past 150 years and earlier. This has led to a profound loss of our traditional way of life and connection to the land. Further impacts and losses occurred, and continue to occur, as a result of imposed legislation, policies, and an annihilation of traditional governance systems. Cumulatively, these acts have eroded our rich cultures and families. Residential schools, mass adoptions of First Nations children (known in Canada as the Sixties Scoop), and the current child welfare system are just a few examples of changes that have caused considerable harm and trauma.

In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released a report based on its mandate to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian residential schools. The TRC documented the truth of survivors, families, communities, and others personally affected by the resident school experience. The TRC report outlined 94 calls to action as well as 10 principles of truth and reconciliation, deemed necessary for “Canada to flourish in the twenty-first century” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, pp. 3–4). Some of us have heard of these and have perhaps been on TRC implementation committees, or our workplaces may have adopted the calls formally. In this chapter each principle will be listed and explored for consideration of how they can be implemented across many settings.

Viewing the counselling relationship as working with a person who is part of a collective allows us to be inclusive of rights.

It has been exciting to see the work being done across the country that involves communities who are engaging in reconciliation work. I even had the opportunity to sit in on a monthly reconciliation circle in a community. The people were non-Indigenous and Indigenous. In the group they were getting to know and learn about one another, sharing a meal and participating in a talking circle about their lives and experiences as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The circle format allows for safe sharing and respect. Members may pass a stone or other object, and in clockwise order the person with the object speaks. Each person gets a turn and can share whatever they want to share, or pass. This is one way of walking in reconciliation. Other ways include organizational leaders formally implementing the principles of truth and reconciliation into their strategic plans and organizational work.

Putting the calls to action into practice can take on many different forms, and all of them can be considered “walking in reconciliation” – they are all positive and necessary first steps to take. As individuals who are passionate about working with people, how many of us have stopped to fully consider, “What do the principles of truth and reconciliation mean to me as a counsellor or helper?” This chapter will help you critically assess your own position in reconciliation and situate your own practice and life within the principles of truth and reconciliation and how they relate to your counselling work with Indigenous families. The chapter will offer a practical consideration of the TRC in counselling and helping relationships, which can be applied to any context where you are working with people affected by colonization and systemic oppression.

To establish myself in this work, I am Cree, and I am a mother. I am a social worker. I am a teacher, trainer, and helper. The order of the roles that define my life matter. Several years ago I had an Elder ask me who I was, and the same elements were there, but they were not as clear. Being Cree and being a mother are the foundation of who I am. I was adopted in the Sixties Scoop. I have two families – a non-Indigenous family and an Indigenous one – and I have learned to balance both and see them both with understanding, love, and kindness. For the past 20 years, I have worked in child welfare, and mental health and addictions, in several roles. I am passionate about helping Indigenous families through difficult life situations, and I see it as a blessing that they allow me to walk beside them for a portion of their journey. This work has often led me to broader areas of practice involving systemic change, and the principles of truth and reconciliation have some of the most potential I have encountered to enact this type of change.

As individuals who are passionate about working with people, how many of us have stopped to fully consider, “What do the principles of truth and reconciliation mean to me as a counsellor or helper?”

For me, the principles of truth and reconciliation offer a pathway out of the trauma my father experienced in residential schools and the impacts to my birth mother’s life that eventually led to my own adoption. The principles provide space for my parents who are not Indigenous to walk a different path with me. Reconciliation offers an opportunity for all of us to walk together in meaningful ways that have not been previously explored. It’s a chance for each of us to pause and reflect on how our relationships with ourselves and others have been, and perhaps how those relationships can change.

As as you consider the principles of reconciliation, and for the time you are reading, try to see with your ears and listen with your eyes. Reconciliation begins with each of us as individuals.

Principle One:

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.

When I am teaching or training, I find many people have either not heard of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) or are not familiar with its contents. You may be thinking, “How does UNDRIP have any impact on my work or on the individuals and families I work with?” This is a valid question, but first let’s consider: “What is UNDRIP?”

UNDRIP is a resolution that was adopted by the United Nations on September 13, 2007. It contains 46 articles that protect Indigenous peoples’ collective rights that may not be addressed in other human rights charters, and it also safeguards the individual rights of Indigenous people. It is full of rich language that affirms Indigenous peoples’ lives and well-being:

Affirming that Indigenous peoples are equal to all other people groups, while recognizing the right of all people groups to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such…

Concerned that Indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests…

Recognizing in particular the right of Indigenous families and communities to retain shared responsibility for the upbringing, training, education and well-being of their children, consistent with the rights of the child. (UN General Assembly, 2007, pp. 2–3, 5)

If we unpack only these three sections from the beginning of the declaration, there is a multitude of richness that can be applied to the work we do with people and families and also for how we live and experience the world.

UNDRIP gives us a framework to critically examine our own practices. For example, are we inclusive of Indigenous families and communities in our practice setting or workplace? If we are not, how can we make that shift?

This has informed my own practice in many ways. For example, with one woman, over the time I worked with her, we talked about key aspects of her life where the collective was a focus. This is in contrast to Western culture where the individual is often the focus. To focus on the collective meant acknowledging how she was raised and the traditional practices she followed from her family lineage in our sessions. We incorporated smudging at the beginning and end of her sessions as a way of recognizing that she came as a Dakota woman and as part of a collective, rather than as an individual. I am Cree and she was Dakota, so I acknowledged the variation in how we had been taught and took the lead from her Dakota traditions. From this focus, her partner, sister, or adult children sometimes joined our sessions. They joined physically and also in “spirit,” via script or role-play practice in which she spoke to them to practice her own changes in the collective relationship.

Viewing the counselling relationship as working with a person who is part of a collective allows us to be inclusive of rights. Adopting a collective lens also gives us the opportunity to use family talking circles and an Elder as key ways to demonstrate aspects of Indigenous rights as outlined in UNDRIP. This is particularly true for non-Indigenous people who were not raised with these practices but are working with other Indigenous people. Reviewing UNDRIP as part of annual professional development is one way this could be achieved. To take it a step further, it is possible to ask the people we are working with about their ideas on UNDRIP. Perhaps they have not looked at it in-depth, and this could offer a way toward cultural affirmation for them and learning for the professional.

The principles provide a progressive approach to incorporating an Indigenous lens. They may differ in length and the number of steps required, however we need to begin with the first one and follow them through to the end as they build on each other. This also builds cultural safety. Cultural safety is a robust practice that requires professionals and their associated organizations to examine themselves and the potential impact of their own culture on clinical interactions (Curtis et al., 2019). As counsellors and helpers who work with people, we all have a responsibility to review UNDRIP and make conscientious steps toward implementing it into our practice.

For each principle, action steps and questions will be provided. Questions can be teaching, through self-reflection. This is a teaching concept many older people and Elders I know use. Nothing is direct in Indigenous ways, and that is often viewed as disrespectful. Structural change begins with internal reflection.

Counsellor Reflections:

  • Review UNDRIP and consider how to implement it in your own practice, using the time toward your professional development hours.
  • Close sessions by reviewing one statement from the Annex or one of the 46 articles of UNDRIP. For example, “Article 4: Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.” Discussing this article could allow brief learning on self-determination in the context of self-governance.

Consider the following questions for additional reflection:

  • How have Indigenous peoples in your area suffered historic injustices, as described in UNDRIP? If you are not aware, how could you learn about this, and why is it important for your counselling practice?
  • As you read UNDRIP, what other steps could fit in your work setting? How could you build these elements into your direct work with people?

Read the full chapter in our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available on our website

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Noela Crowe-Salazar

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Noela is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling in Relationships – Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available on our website.

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