Aboriginal Career Development in Canada: Techniques Also Applicable to Other Clients Facing Barriers

It has been an historic year for Aboriginal peoples in Canada. In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its findings of the harms experienced through the Indian Residential School System, along with recommendations for moving forward, including the elimination of education and employment gaps. As Canada comes to terms with its past and seeks reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, career practitioners have an important role to play.

Cannexus, Canada’s National Career Development Conference, will be putting a focus on exploring career development through an Aboriginal lens in 2016. The conference, which takes place January 25-27 in Ottawa, is expected to bring together 800 professionals to exchange information and explore innovative approaches in all facets of career counselling and career development. NCDA is a supporting organization for Cannexus16.


Canada has a young and fast-growing Aboriginal population. The median age of those who identify themselves as Aboriginal is 28 years, compared to 41 years for non-Aboriginal people. (Statistics Canada, 2013). Aboriginal peoples in Canada consist of First Nations, Métis (mixed First Nations and European ancestry) and Inuit (the Aboriginal people of Canada’s Artic). Numerous social and economic challenges confront many Aboriginal peoples in Canada. High unemployment, discrimination and low educational attainment persist. Furthermore, there is a lack of culturally appropriate resources for career development. While research has shown that accessing general academic and career services is possible for Aboriginal youth (at least in urban areas), there is a lack of employment programs, vocational training and post-secondary support geared towards Aboriginal peoples (Stewart & Reeves, 2009; Stewart et al., 2011).

Career Development Approaches

The recently published book Career Development Practice in Canada includes a chapter on Aboriginal career development from Natasha Caverley, Suzanne Stewart and Blythe Shepard. In it, the authors assert that career development programs in a diverse country like Canada must recognize that individuals have unique interests and socio-cultural backgrounds. They highlight several strengths-based career development strategies that practitioners can use to assist Aboriginal peoples in meeting their career needs in a culturally congruent manner. Many of these techniques can be applied or adapted in working with other clients broadly, but particularly those facing barriers.

  • Guiding Circles
    Guiding Circles is a career tool from Gray Poehnell, Norm Amundson and Rod McCormick that blends current career development knowledge with traditional Aboriginal perspectives. It assists people in discovering and valuing who they are and uses those discoveries to generate and explore realistic career alternatives.
  • Job Autobiography
    A job autobiography provides an opportunity for clients to list jobs (paid and volunteer) that they have held. Clients reflect upon why they took the job and why they left, and what they liked and disliked. Through the process, career practitioners elicit themes, patterns, implicit values, beliefs and assumptions in clients’ narratives.
  • Possible Selves
    This technique involves career practitioners working with their clients to discuss their possible selves: (a) what they hope for, (b) what their desired future states are, and (c) what are possible feared future outcomes (Shepard & Quressette, 2010). Possible selves have a concrete impact in preventing realization of negative possible selves.
  • Life Mapping
    Life mapping is a tool that is useful in understanding someone’s cultural context. Practitioners ask their clients to map important influences in their lives, or values that are important to them (Shepard, 2004). Afterwards, practitioners draw connections between different aspects of their clients’ maps in relation to self-identity.
  • Dependable Strengths
    This is a technique that practitioners can use to help clients uncover the strengths and assets that they may have minimized or been entirely unaware of (Haldane, 1989). Practitioners engage in dialogue with clients to determine “when clients did something well, when they enjoyed doing an activity or skill and felt proud of it.”

Promising Practices

At the Cannexus16 conference, many of the originators of these career development approaches, including Gray Poehnell, Norm Amundson and Suzanne Stewart will present. The conference will also feature a special plenary with the Honorable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, about how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada can work together to build a more inclusive society.

The Commission, which wrapped up earlier this year, listened to stories from Survivors and Witnesses about their experience with the Indian Residential School system as well as the intergenerational trauma it has caused. Forcibly taken from their families, 150,000 Aboriginal children were placed in Residential Schools, where they were often forbidden to speak their languages or practice their cultures, and many were also subject to abuse (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).

As we look towards the future, several promising practices in Aboriginal career development will be shared at the conference. Common themes relate to career counselling methods based on a “whole-person” approach; capacity building that fosters employability and connects into post-secondary accreditation; and partnerships between industry, training institutions and Aboriginal organizations.

Career practitioners in Canada have an opportunity to show leadership in moving forward with reconciliation. It begins with educating themselves on the history of Aboriginal peoples’ and the obstacles they encounter. Practitioners can then implement culturally appropriate strategies and promising practices that support Aboriginal clients in their career journeys. Such approaches can also prove relevant to practitioners globally working with mistreated and underserved client groups.

To learn more about the Cannexus16 conference, visit www.cannexus.ca


Caverley N., Stewart S., & Shepard B. (2014). Though an Aboriginal Lens. In B. Shepard and P. Mani (Eds.), Career Development Practice in Canada: Perspectives, Principles and Professionalism (pp. 297-330). Toronto, Canada: CERIC Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling.

Haldane, B. (1989). The dependable strengths articulation process: How it works. Seattle, WA: College of Education, University of Washington. Retrieved from http://www.dependablestrengths.org/

Shepard, B. (2004). In search of self: A qualitative study of the life-career development of rural young women. Canadian Journal of Counselling, 38(2), 75–90.

Shepard, B., & Quressette, S. (2010). Possible selves mapping intervention: Rural women and beyond. In G. R. Wolz, J. C. Bluer, & R. K. Yep (Eds.), Ideas and research you can use, Vistas 2010. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Statistics Canada. (2013). Aboriginal peoples in Canada: First Nations people, Métis and
Inuit, national household survey, 2011. Ottawa, ON: Author. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/130508/dq130508a-eng.htm

Stewart S., & Reeves, A. (2009, January). Decolonizing graduate school: Exploring the successes of Indigenous graduate students in Canada. Paper presented at the Hawaii International Conference on Education, Honolulu, HI.

Stewart, S., Reeves, A., Mohanty, S., & Syrette, J. (2011, June). Indigenous mental health: Career and education as part of overall healing. Paper presented at the Canadian Psychological Association Convention in Toronto, ON.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). TRC releases calls to action to begin reconciliation. Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/TRCReportPressRelease%20%281%29.pdf

Sharon Ferriss is the Director of Marketing, Web and New Media at the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (CERIC). CERIC (www.ceric.ca) is a charitable organization that advances education and research in career counselling and career development, in order to increase the economic and social well-being of Canadians. It funds projects to develop innovative resources that build the knowledge and skills of diverse career professionals. CERIC also annually hosts Cannexus, Canada’s largest bilingual career development conference, publishes the country’s only peer-reviewed journal, The Canadian Journal of Career Development, and runs the free ContactPoint / OrientAction online communities, which provide learning and networking in the career field. Sharon can be reached at sharon@ceric.ca

This entry was posted in Adult Career Changes.