CIC - Fall 2021

Graduate Profile: Alexandria O’Toole

A career in social services can be rewarding for those who are interested in helping people and making a real difference in their communities.

Alexandria O’Toole is the Regional Coordinator at an agency that helps to prevent family violence with community-driven programming.

“The organization I work for addresses family violence in the Manitoba First Nations as well as promotes and raises awareness about family violence prevention. The organization offers several initiatives in an attempt to prevent, respond to and assist during family violence crises,” she says, “For those experiencing a mental health crisis, or family violence crisis, in an isolated, remote, or rural community it may be hard to access services and resources that may assist them. Our organization provides 24/7 access to mental health therapists who are from the region, are culturally and traditionally respectful and knowledgeable, and speak the language of the community.”

Isolation and lack of infrastructure can contribute to unique problems affecting a large number of Indigenous populations.

Stats Canada says that First Nations women (42%) and MÈtis women (46%) were approximately twice as likely to experience physical abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime compared with non-Indigenous women (22%). About one-third of Inuit women (34%) reported experiencing this type of violence in their lifetime.

“It’s frustrating to hear and see the challenges the people and the communities we serve, go through. I realize I am only one person and can only do so much, but I wish I could do more and see immediate results,” Alexandria says.

As a graduate of the Aboriginal and Northern Counselling Skills program offered at University College of the North in Manitoba, Alexandria is making a difference. Completing such courses as residential school impacts and the healing journey, Elder teachings in Aboriginal languages, bullying in schools, suicide prevention and intervention and working with families and groups has given her the ability to respond to crises in northern communities in a professional and culturally-appropriate manner.

The Aboriginal and Northern Counselling Skills program provides students with programming specifically designed for Aboriginal and northern people. All courses reflect the Aboriginal way of life. Other theories include cognitive behaviour therapy as well as strength-based and solution-focused counselling.

Graduates of the course must complete 10 required and two elective courses as well as a final four-week practicum. 

Alexandria says, “I always enjoy learning something new! I’ve enjoyed the relevant readings and videos we’ve reviewed. I’ve enjoyed the discussions the group has. It’s truly an interdisciplinary approach, as folks who attend this program are from all fields and walks of life. Most importantly, the land-based, culturally appropriate teachings we’ve received thus far are insurmountable… I have enjoyed all of the courses I’ve taken so far.”

Alexandria adds, “In one of our courses, we went out onto the land and learned about the residential school that had previously been in the area. We heard from Elders and Knowledge Keepers in the community, practiced traditional and cultural teachings, and ended the day in a good way with a feast.”

Alexandria entered the program because it is relevant to her field of work and to her future professional endeavours such as opening her own practice and completing her Masterís degree in the Social Sciences.

Working in the social services field, Alexandria has found that she particularly enjoys the fact that she is helping people, sometimes during their greatest need, while also expanding her horizons.

“I enjoy working with the different First Nation communities in this province and getting to know the people I come into contact with. Pre-pandemic, we travelled across the province and country for work purposes, and the experience gathered from doing so has expanded my mind and enriched my life,” Alexandria says.

Young people are affected by the remoteness and lack of social services in many Indigenous communities as well. Alexandria particularly enjoys this aspect of her work.

She says, “Working with youth and setting positive examples, being a positive role model and mentor, working with young adults who were unemployed and unenthusiastic about their future.  It’s about building them up – their self-esteem, etc., and connecting them with resources and opportunities that appeal to them. Six to 12 months later they’re researching what university they’d like to further their education at, they’re working in the community, and are excited about their future.”

So how did her post-secondary education prepare her for a job in the “real world”?

“By encouraging students to begin reaching out to the communities and organizations we’re interested in working for/with, in an attempt to build a good working relationship and rapport with key contacts and individuals. Over the months we discuss relevant topics of concern, such as what the news is covering, so that we can form an educated, well-rounded perspective of such events. We hear the experiences, first-hand, from frontline workers, and from potential future clients. Lastly, we learn practical skills, such as how to use certain online programs, or techniques to better manage our workloads, etc.,” says Alexandria.

There are many careers that can be explored as a graduate of the Aboriginal and Northern Counselling Skills program.

As Alexandria explains, “The skills gained from this program could be applied to a plethora of job positions especially in the social services field. As the topic of mental health becomes less taboo, the demand for counselling services should increase, and we’ll need as many counsellors who are appropriately educated, culturally-respectful, and aware of the many harms and traumas inflicted on the people of this land, as possible.” 

By: Jackie Fritz