The Hay River Health and Social Services Authority is increasing the education requirements for community counsellors, but the move is not sitting well with some people who have relied on counselling.

Community counsellors help those coping with emotional or psychological stress or addictions. The health authority is now requiring at least a master’s degree for the job. Community Care and Social Services said the decision was based on a se ries of reports and systems other authorities have implemented.

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Joletta Larocque, director of Community and Continuing Care for the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority, says counsellors with master's degrees will be able to take care of more complex problems. (CBC)

It said three current community counsellors who did not have master's degrees were given the choice of a community wellness worker position or a severance package. All three took the severance package.

Only one counsellor remains on staff.

Joletta Larocque, director of Community and Continuing Care for the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority, said people will continue to get the same care they have been getting and more.

She said the new counsellors will be able to take care of more complex problems.

"The skills are different and there's counselling skills you need to be academically trained in," she said. "It's not something you can get from life experience."

The health authority said it's moving quickly to fill the positions. It said it prefers candidates from the North but is also looking South.

The local Roman Catholic priest is calling for the current counsellors to be kept on. He said he needs their help this year more than ever.

"I've had 14 funerals this year, three of which have been murders," said Rev. Don Flumerfelt. "Many of the family members I've had to spend time with. So I need time to debrief, I need counselling services like this."

Flumerfelt said a master’s degree is no guarantee that replacements are going to be more effective.

"Is it going to be somebody from the south who has no context for the North, who has no aboriginal culture and language?These were good counsellors. They had good context; they had good empathy with their clients."

Hay River resident Beatrice Lepine said she sought counselling when she was young and addicted to alcohol. Though her counsellor wasn't a part of the Community Counselling program, Lepine said her counsellor had similar credentials to many working in Hay River — no master’s degree.

"I finally went to treatment and it was the best thing I did for my life," said Lepine. "It was the best thing I did for my life, you know, to understand the role alcohol has had in our lives as aboriginal people."

Lepine said the move to increase formal education requirements is a throwback to the 1960s, when all positions of authority were held by non-aboriginal people from outside the territory.