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Kids Help Phone's Healthy Communities Initiative: How to Counsel the Counselors

Counselors trained to respond to indigenous context help youth help themselves.

Pia Bahile 25 Mar

Pia Bahile is a Toronto-based journalist with a passion for international issues. She is currently an editor at Journalists for Human Rights.

[Editor's note: This is part of a series of reports on successful youth-focused projects resulting from collaboration between indigenous communities and philanthropic organizations. Leading Together is itself a collaboration of Journalists for Human Rights, Tyee Solutions SocietyWawatay Native Communications Society, and the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation which commissioned this journalism. In the coming weeks look for more Leading Together stories from across Canada running Tuesdays and Wednesdays in The Tyee.]

The statistics are staggering.

Twenty-five per cent of indigenous children in Canada live in poverty.

Every year, indigenous youth commit suicide at a rate five times higher than non-indigenous Canadian young people.

Indigenous youth are overrepresented in the Canadian correctional system by a wide margin.

Behind these statistics are children and young people struggling with a host of health and social issues, often with nowhere to turn. Increasingly, they are calling Kids Help Phone.

Established in 1989, Kids Help Phone is a 24-hour hotline that provides anonymous counselling to young Canadians. Children and adolescents can call Kids Help Phone, or access the information-packed website to get professional advice on a wide range of issues, among them peer pressure, eating disorders and bullying. Indigenous youth, who make up about 10 per cent of Kids Help Phone's callers, need advice on those issues as well as culturally specific problems.

Todd Solomon, Clinical Director of English Language Services at Kids Help Phone and himself a person of Ojibwa heritage, cites the legacy of residential schools, the physical isolation of reserves, the limited access to resources, lack of opportunity and the small and close-knit communities as the contextual background for the indigenous youth calling Kids Help Phone.

"Aboriginal youth are still youth," explained Todd Solomon. "What changes are the community and the context they are living in, which we really needed to address for our counselling staff."

'You're not alone'

The Toronto-based counselors are tucked in the back corner of the office in a quiet section of grey cubicles. On the front of one cubicle is a black poster with two outstretched hands cradling a smudge bowl. Beneath the smudge bowl are the words "You're not alone." The poster is just one of Kids Help Phone's efforts in recent years to improve their outreach to indigenous youth.

In 2009, Kids Help Phone resource specialist Kristen Buckley reached out to the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, headed by Cindy Blackstock, to provide professional development workshops for counselors in order to better serve Kids Help Phone's indigenous callers. Those workshops, based on indigenous-created principles to guide child welfare for indigenous children, youth and families, comprised phase one of Kids Help Phone's year-long Healthy Communities project.

Funded by the Ontario Government's Ministry of Health Promotion and Sport, Healthy Communities provided Kids Help Phone staff with the opportunity to complete professional development and community outreach focused on indigenous youth.

The professional development phase, which began in 2010, consisted of the three workshops led by Caring Society staff for about 50 Kids Help Phone counselors at its centres in Toronto and Montreal. The outreach phase, in 2011, involved engagement with five communities – Serpent River, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Kettle and Stony Point and Moose Factory. Twenty Kids Help Phone staff members made the trips to the communities to assess needs.

In the 10 workshops, usually about three hours long and with 20 to 30 participants, Kids Help Phone staff asked the youth what they knew about the organization, how it could be a valuable service for them and whether Kids Help Phone's campaigns resonated with them.

"At the end of the day the young people said, 'I just want to be heard. My issues might be more complex but I'm a young person and that's what comes first and foremost,'" said Buckley.

For a project that is all about communication, Solomon said it was important for Kids Help Phone counselors to communicate with indigenous youth in a way that would allow them to respond with their truth. "Actually speaking to the youth itself was at times challenging," said Solomon. "We had to learn exactly how to ask questions in a way that they would be well-received and the answers would be honest and useful."

"It took us some time to build up a comfort level," agreed Buckley. "We had different activities that we wanted to do and we realized very quickly that interactive-based activities just weren't really taking off, so we changed those activities to writing and thoughtful introspection."

The power of asking

Healthy Communities spurred other partnerships for Kids Help Phone. In 2010, Kids Help Phone partnered with the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) to produce a fact sheet on bullying, and the following year Kids Help Phone held a poster competition, in collaboration with the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT).

Springwater Hester-Meawassige was formerly the Youth Services Manager at NCCT and the Healthy Communities Project Assistant. Hester-Meawassige organized the community visits and facilitated the poster competition.

"Basically every community we went to, the kids said they could not relate to the Kids Help Phone posters at all," said Hester-Meawassige.

"We had already finished all the community visits and the project was coming to an end and I said, 'I have access to all these kids. Why don't we see if they can come up with something?'"

A group of nine centre regulars designed posters they felt better appealed to indigenous youth and then voted online to pick the two winners. One of the winning entries is the black poster featuring the smudge bowl that hangs in Kids Help Phone's Toronto office. Two years later, NCCT also has several of the posters still on display.

Because Kids Help Phone is confidential and anonymous, the organization has no statistics to measure the success and impact of the Healthy Communities project, but the level of community buy-in via partnerships and overall impact is clear. Kids Help Phone cites new partnerships with NAHO (defunded by the federal government and closed in 2012), NCCT and the Caring Society; the fact that Kids Help Phone was able to reach over 275 young people through its visits to Moose Factory, Serpent River, Toronto, Thunder Bay, and Kettle and Stony Point; and, the increase in Kids Help Phone counselors' cultural sensitivity as among the project's greatest achievements.

"For me it was a good reminder to be curious and open as to what are the important factors in someone's life," said Jessie Kussin, a Kids Help Phone manager and former counselor who visited Thunder Bay with Healthy Communities. "We can't know how someone is affected by their culture, by their community and by systemic issues unless we ask."

"It's a real honour for Kids Help Phone as a national organization to think that we have a role to play for young people to sort things out so that they move ahead with their lives," noted Solomon on Healthy Communities. "The project itself has ended but the impact has not."


Healthy Communities is based on the Touchstones of Hope reconciliation movement, which is a reconciliation process of:

Truth Telling

[All work] begins with a full and truthful accounting of child welfare respecting indigenous children, youth, and families. Must be told from both non-indigenous and indigenous perspectives.


[All work] recognizes that child welfare practices imposed on indigenous peoples, and the values that guided them, are not the right path to follow.

[All work] affirms the child welfare practices of indigenous people, and the values that guide them.

[All work] adopts equality, fairness, and balance as essential guidelines to child welfare.

[All work] allows for a new path that reflects learning from the past towards a better future based on mutual respect.


[All work] provides an opportunity to work together on new child welfare practice in a positive way that addresses past harms and sets a framework to avoid them in future.


[All work] recognizes that reconciliation is an ongoing investment in a new way of being and a relationship to achieve a broader goal: a child welfare system that genuinely supports the needs of indigenous children and youth.

This process is guided by principles of:

• Culture and Language
• Holistic Approach
• Structural Interventions
• Non Discrimination
• Self Determination  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous

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