Charla Huber: Feeling connected is key to empowerment

Connecting with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and communities is something that is important to me. I walk in two worlds and look at this as a privilege. Sometimes, I find ways to bring other people into this walk, when the opportunities present themselves.

We hear a lot about the importance of connectedness right now and how we need to manage this while we limit our social circles and practise physical distancing.

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I had an a-ha moment last week during a conversation with Grace Elliott-Nielsen, the executive director of the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Nanaimo.

Elliott-Nielsen, a member of Stz’uminus First Nation, shared with me that in more than 45 years running Tillicum Lelum, she’s seen how Indigenous people often feel disconnected from society.

She found that for people to find their place in community, have a successful career, be a good friend, and give back, they needed to first achieve connectedness.

Elliott-Nielsen first saw success through a counselling training program, accredited through Vancouver Island University, that she developed with a team through the friendship centre.

“The first time we ran the course, 13 students received promotions at their workplace,” Elliott-Nielsen said. “The biggest part of the program was empowerment and connectedness. They needed to learn to connect with themselves before they could connect with others.”

With the success of the counselling program, Elliott-Nielsen worked with others, including her daughter Tammie Miles, to develop an empowerment training program.

Connectedness is important for everyone right now, and how we get there may look different, but achieving the knowledge to understand the mental health of our families and our friends is crucial. We hear Dr. Bonnie Henry explain this often.

Elliott-Nielsen explained that lack of connection to society for many Indigenous people stems from the lasting effects of colonization, including residential schools and hierarchical structures in our schools and workplaces.

Reasons for a lack a connectedness will vary between people and community groups, and there’s no space for judgment.

“All people need to know their history and where they come from,” said Elliott-Nielsen, who explains that a big part of empowering is to understand our own stories, the paths our ancestors took, and the journey each of us have been on.

“You really need to know the whole story.”

Through the empowerment training program, Elliott-Nielsen has seen the value it’s brought to many people’s lives and she has cards and letters to prove it. Elliott-Nielsen has taken the training five times and said every time she’s done it, she’s learned something new about herself.

“Working through the empowerment allows us to identify the barriers we all have,” Elliott-Nielsen said. “It also helps you find your hopes and dreams.”

It seems fitting that we need to connect with ourselves first and gain some control of our lives and find our place in this new world.

Elliott-Nielsen is a wise person and she has accomplished a lot in her life, including receiving the Order of B.C., an honorary doctorate of laws from Malaspina University College and the 125th Commemorative Award from the Governor General for outstanding contributions to the country.

Elliot-Nielsen was also recognized by the Canadian government in 2006 as one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

If she’s found value in this that helps enhance her life, I am sure we can all benefit too.

Charla Huber is the Director of Communications and Indigenous Relations at M’akola Housing Society.

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