Merging Aboriginal Traditions with Peer Mentor Leadership Training

Not only is Peer Resources one of the world’s oldest peer assistance train-the-trainer organizations, but they were the first organization to offer a peer mentor program train-the-trainer workshop based on Aboriginal (First Nations) customs and traditions.

Few people know that many of the elements of successful experiential training date back to historical practices that were part of many North American native groups. The “talking circle,” for example, was unknown to the European settlers who came to North America, but was an ancient practice of the Indians they encountered.

Unfortunately, the encounters between the native and European cultures became dominated by a campaign to eliminate the practices, customs and traditions of native culture. Many of the health, healing, spiritual, and educational customs were lost, forbidden, hidden, or forgotten during this attempt to suppress the native way of life.

During the 1970’s when Peer Resources was exploring whether high school students in British Columbia would want to and be able to help each other using positive peer pressure, many of the peer mentor volunteers were students from First Nations ancestry.

Because our training model was based on a socio-cultural tradition—that is, a model that relied on understanding and building upon how individuals within a culture positively communicated with each other and how they understood the world they lived in—we realized we had much to learn about the differences in communication and perspective between native and non-native youth.

What was most surprising as we conducted our research with elders and members of First Nations groups in British Columbia and other Aboriginal groups in Canada and the United States, was the similarity between their traditions and customs and the practices we were using in our training sessions.

And even more powerful was our own finding that the more we established and integrated First Nations customs into our training sessions, the more successful the training sessions became for non-native participants. We were also privileged to have a highly skilled and experienced educator, mentor and coach, Ron Jorgenson, act as our lead trainer. Ron has continued to lead these training sessions for more than 20 years.

Some of our most skilled peer mentor program leaders, upon refreshing what they learned in our “comprehensive training” course, remarked that taking the First Nation version of the same course was a much better learning experience. Participants described their learning as more personally satisfying and deeper, with a greater appreciation of and respect for cultural diversity. In addition, they saw the training as empowering them to develop their own facilitation style and design and manage what was needed for their own peer program effectiveness. As a result, dozens of peer programs have been successfully established in First Nations communities, and many communities now hold their own train-the-trainer sessions for First Nation peer leaders.

From 2005 to 2012 Peer Resources held five-day workshops every summer in Victoria, British Columbia at the University of Victoria. The workshops integrated Aboriginal principles into both the workshop process and the content and were specifically designed for persons who worked in youth populations (ages 12-25) from diverse backgrounds. The purpose of the workshop was to prepare youth workers, educators, teachers, mentor program leaders, and counsellors to establish state-of-the-art peer-led programs for youth (elementary school age to university-based students) who represent a variety of diverse groups in today’s society.

Persons who had previously taken other peer training courses emphatically stated that these specialized sessions enhanced their learning of how to use the medicine wheel, healing circles, ceremony, and other Aboriginal customs and traditions.

The seminars covered all key topics for effective peer program development including:

  • practical strategies to recruit, select, and supervise peer mentors;
  • twenty roles peer mentors use to prevent problems, mediate disputes and promote healthy growth;
  •  the twelve core skills of a peer mentor training curriculum;
  • how to design a curriculum for advanced skills and issues;
  • a custom-designed set of peer training and peer program development materials and resources;
  • experiential learning techniques that energize training;
  • when to teach and when to facilitate;
  • how to conduct a needs assessment for program longevity;
  • how to use feedback and facilitation skills to train like an expert;
  • how and when to motivate peer mentors;
  • how to gain and maintain program support from unexpected sources;
  • six proven methods to turn resistance into alliance;
  • eight peer program standards that resolve challenging legal issues;
  • examples of successful implementation strategies; and
  • how to use simple strategies to evaluate program progress.

Participants in the five-day workshop were organized into small groups for the peer training and consultation activities. Each participant has an opportunity to partner with another workshop participant to lead a supervised training session. The workshop relied strongly on interactive methods designed to maximize adult learning and to model effective training. Participants were involved in lectures, communication skill exercises, role plays, training leadership opportunities, curriculum development, peer mentoring, and other experiential activities.

Participants were also eligible to apply for national certification as Peer Mentor Trainers (Level I or Level II). This certification system is based on national training standards originally developed by the Peer Counselling Project at the University of Victoria. Participants who attended a complete workshop received a Certificate of Completion.

While we no longer offer these workshops on an annual basis, we do offer them on a specialized, custom basis in communities in North America. Anyone interested in setting up one of these workshops in their community to be led by an experienced First Nations training leader is encouraged to contact Peer Resources by phone or email.


Carr, R.A. (2005). Peer helping: Youth working together. Thunder Bay, Ontario: Nishnawbe Aski Nation. (Retrieved May 1, 2009 from

Carr, R.A. (2001). The theory and practice of peer helping. Victoria, BC: Peer Resources.Carr, R.A.

Carr, R.A., & Saunders, G.A. (1999). The peer counselling starter kit. Victoria, BC: Peer
France, H. (2000). The helping circle: First Nations peer support network. (Retrieved May 1, 2009 from
Jorgenson, R. (2004). Kit & culture: Supplemental resources for peer counselling in First Nations communities. Victoria, BC: Peer Resources.
Jorgenson, R. (2004). Youth helping youth: A training plan introducing peer helping into a native community. Victoria, BC: Peer Resources.

MacDonald, S., Denby, C., and Madak, P. (2003). The Northern Aboriginal Peer Support Network Program: Current practices and plans for a generative curriculum. Unpublished manuscript: First Nations Center, University of Northern British Columbia.

Saskatoon Health Region. (November 19, 2008). Aboriginal LiveWell program celebrates success. e-connect: The Saskatoon Health Region Employee Newsletter. (Retrieved May 31, 2009 from

Six Nations Police. (2008). Community service: Peer helping. Ohsweken, Ontario: Six Nations Police Service. (Retrieved May 10, 2009 from

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Guardians of Mentoring

Existential psychotherapist James Bugental (1915-2008), the author of The Search for Authenticity, mentored many well-known psychotherapy practitioners. One of those, Orah Krug, recalled that her mentor likened his role to that of a track and field coach who, running along side the hurdler, helps the athlete maintain form. “My function,” Dr. Bugental said to his mentoring partner, “is that of being my client’s ally, of supporting the client’s effort to be authentically present and self-exploring.”

Mentor in Memorium: Edward Albee (1928-2016)

I met playwright Edward Albee when he was in Los Angeles shortly after Elizabeth Taylor won the Academy Award for best actress in the film version of Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” He ordered something from the drug store in Beverly Hills where I was working doing deliveries. I got to deliver his order to him while he was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I had his name on the delivery sheet and I recognized him right away when he answered the door himself.

He was very friendly and he asked me if I also delivered stuff to other Hollywood people and named a couple of names. I said I wasn’t allowed to reveal any of the names of our customers. He launched into some caustic and funny comments about “movie people” particularly Jack Warner (the studio head), Richard Burton (who played opposite Elizabeth Taylor and was also nominated for a best actor Academy Award), and Jack Valenti (the head censor in Hollywood). I remember those names in particular because they were all involved with the movie version.

After this meeting, I started reading everything he wrote. The dialogue in his plays was always sparkling, acerbic, and witty. I had never seen a play before I met him, so I owe my play-going life to meeting him in 1967.