The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network is working to make counselling from Indigenous elders available to employees in several provinces through its employee assistance program.

The APTN has reached out to six elders in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia, with three to date confirming they’ll participate. Once the APTN has sufficient elders on board, its EAP provider will reach out to determine what services elders are able to offer and what compensation, including traditional gifts, they’ll receive.

The program is an expansion of an ongoing pilot project that began a few years ago at the network’s head office in Winnipeg, where two elders, a husband and wife, were made available to the APTN staff. The company’s human resources department has been seeking to expand the initiative, says Debbie Isaak, the APTN’s director of HR.

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“As an Indigenous employer — we are about 66 per cent Indigenous people here — we found that having a specific Indigenous elder available to our employees was critical. [Indigenous elders can cover] anything the EAP would in terms of counselling, but with having an Indigenous element to it.”

If elders choose, the counselling sessions can begin with smudging, an Indigenous ceremony to help participants be more grounded in the present and let go of negative feelings. In Winnipeg, the APTN has made it possible for employees to make an offering of tobacco to the elder at the conclusion of the counselling sessions. “We’ve put something in place to ensure we maintain the cultural aspect of this sort of counselling,” says Isaak, though she that may be more difficult to co-ordinate for its other bureaus.

Elders have a deep knowledge and connection to Indigenous culture and the seven sacred teachings, she notes. “That’s how they can incorporate counselling with these Indigenous teachings.”

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With offices across the country, the APTN has faced challenges finding elders for all of its bureaus, says Isaak. “Elders are few and far between. They would want to be able to support us in this [but] some of these locations are quite remote.”

Currently, the option wouldn’t be available to employees in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut or Quebec. “But we’re doing our best to reach out to the elders we know and our employees know,” she says. “It’s a huge project that’s underway. We’re making some strides, we’re getting some good headway in terms of getting elders on board across the country.”