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.”

Use Experiential Learning to Introduce Mentoring

Four-Way-Split_2A colleague recently asked me for ideas about how to introduce mentoring to the corporate executives he was coaching. This kind of request is becoming more and more prevalent in the business community as various executives and service providers learn about the value (or business case) for mentoring.

A consensus exists regarding the factors necessary to increase organization buy-in or commitment to a mentoring initiative, and they have been clearly identified by mentoring experts David Clutterbuck (see page 5 of this issue of the Peer Bulletin), Ann Rolfe of MentoringWorks, and Rene Petrin of Management Mentors. While the ingredients these experts enumerate are essential, I’ve created two activities that will  provide executives and managers with direct and immediate experience with mentoring, and engage even the most reluctant stakeholder in supporting the value of mentoring.

Activity One: Mentors in Our Lives

When many people are asked to identify a person in their life that they consider a “mentor,” they often draw a blank or say they didn’t have any mentors. This is not an unusual reaction. The term mentor can generate a variety of unstated definitions or characterizations based on popular myths.

This activity is designed to provide a more accurate definition of the term mentor, while at the same time establishing both a cognitive and experiential consensus for what characteristics are associated with the term mentor. Such a consensus typically increases interest in and commitment to mentoring.

The activity begins by asking participants to:

  1. “Think back in your life, and picture a person outside of your family from whom you learned what we might call a life lesson; that is, a lesson or viewpoint that you still use or think today.”
  2. “When you have that person in mind, write the person’s initials on a piece of paper.”
  3. “Find a partner in the room here, and (a) share the brief version of the life lesson (what you learned from the person); and (b) identify the characteristics of that person (or what you recall they did or said) that helped you learn this life lesson.”
  4. “After you’ve (each) identified and shared the list of characteristics with each other, see if you can further identify any common elements and rank them in terms of importance.

The activity leader then solicits the findings from the group members, and writes them on a flip chart or whiteboard. What’s happening here is that the activity leader has provided a definition of the term mentor (a person from whom you learn a life lesson), has engaged the participants in experiencing that definition, and is soliciting from the participants a list of mentor behaviours or actions without having to provide a lecture or presentation about mentoring. (This is the essence of the Peer Resources’ experiential learning model.)

When the group has provided the characteristics (that are now on the flip chart), the leader asks the group to rank the various characteristics in order of importance.

When this is completed, the leader then suggests to the participants that not only have they identified mentors in their lives, but they have also identified the characteristics that mentor experts also identify as associated with effective mentors.

Should the leader examine the list and see that they do not match up with what mentoring experts suggest are the key characteristics, then the leader can add those characteristics to the list and ask the participants for (a) their sense of why their list differs from the experts; and (b) what they think of the experts list.

To conclude this activity, the activity leader asks the participants to share (a) what they’ve learned from doing this activity; and (b) how they might use or apply what they’ve learned in their work or personal life (with the possible inclusion of expressing gratitude, thanks or appreciation, if appropriate, to the recalled mentor.)

Activity II: The Five-Minute Mentor

5 minThis activity can be used to assist stakeholders and others who might consider becoming mentors to directly experience (a) how little time it actually takes to be an effective mentor (thus reducing the often expressed concern about the time required); (b) how a mentor can be effective without being an “expert” (thus reducing the need to view mentors as “all-knowing” in their field); and (c) introducing participants to a set of steps and questions for effective mentoring. The activity consists of six steps and follows the Peer Resources experiential learning model.

In each of the steps that follow, I’ve suggested dialogue or questions that the Mentor can use. These prompts are designed to achieve the purpose or value of that particular step. The Mentor may need to engage in additional listening such as demonstrating understanding and asking for clarification in order to assist the partner to articulate his or her ideas. (As the facilitator of this activity I typically wander around to each pair and provide coaching if they are stuck or engaging in unhelpful prompts.)

Step One: Find a partner.

Decide who will be the mentor and who will be the partner. (Note that we call the person receiving mentoring a “partner” and not a mentoree, protege, or mentee. We believe that the term partner more accurately reflects the learning-oriented relationship of mentoring.)

Step Two: Develop the Relationship (Build Rapport).

The Mentor sends a welcoming message (verbal and non-verbal) like, “I’m glad we could meet together. I’m really looking forward to working with you as your mentor.”

The Partner sends an appreciation message (verbal and non-verbal) like, “Thanks for taking the time to meet with me. I think I can learn a lot from our connection.”

Step Three: Set the Agenda (Formulate the Purpose)

The Mentor initiates the conversation (typically during early mentor/partner meetings) to establish an agenda and says something like: “Let’s focus on this session with Rey.”

The partner responds by adding to the agenda by saying something like “That’s great; and if we have time, let’s arrange our next meeting time and possible topics.”

Step Four: Engage in the Learning Conversation (Share Objectives, Current Reality, Challenges, Methods, and Action Plans)

The Mentor says something like: “I’d like to know about your goals for this session. What’s the most important thing you want to learn during this session on mentoring?”

The Partner: (shares learning goals)

The Mentor: “What is it about your learning goal that makes it important to you?”

The Partner: (shares value)

The Mentor: “How do you plan to achieve your goal?”

The Partner: (shares strategy or plan)

The Mentor: “What, if anything, might interfere with your plan?”

The Partner: (shares possible blocks)

The Mentor: “What methods might you use or have you used in the past to prevent block(s) from occurring?”

The Partner: (shares methods)

The Mentor: “Given what we’ve discussed so far, what actions will you take to put your plan into practice?”

The Partner: (shares action(s)

Step Five: Close the Session (Assess Progress)

The Mentor (referring to the mentoring interaction) summarizes what he or she has learned, suggests an agenda item for next session, and expresses appreciation for something he or she has observed.

The Partner summarizes what he or she has learned, suggests an agenda item for next session, and expresses appreciation for something he or she has observed.

Step Six: Identify Learning and Action

Now that the mentoring pairs have completed their experience, the leader asks the participants to identify what they learned from engaging in this activity and how they plan to put that learning into practice in their current work or personal lives.

As a result of what participants share in this step, the leader will know how successful the session was in achieving the goals as well as what areas may need more clarification or elaboration. Thus, the leader may now be able to initiate discussion based on the actual experiences and concerns of the participants.