The Cariboo Family Enrichment Centre’s new inclusive Cariboo Gender Support counselling program is seeing wide support, attracting clients not only from 100 Mile House but as far away as Williams Lake, Kelowna and Kamloops.
CFEC’s executive director Chris Pettman, who has run the program with his wife for the past five years, said the gender-affirming program aims to provide support to both gender-diverse people and their caregivers. The growing interest in the program reinforces the importance of Trans Care BC’s ongoing mission to make B.C. more inclusive for the gender-diverse population, he said.
While most clients are under 30, Pettman said they have also had older individuals also accessing these services, which he said is “fantastic.”
“In the last year we’ve had 14 people identify as non-binary in the last 365 days coming for counselling,” he said.
The program, funded with micro-grants, started as a pilot project from the Public Health Services Agency, in particular Trans Care BC, to offer both mental and physical supports for gender diverse people, Pettman said.
“We were part of that pilot, the peers and caregiver support group, to provide feedback provincially as to what supports are needed the most for trans people.”
The number one thing that was needed across the province from rural B.C. to the Lower Mainland was the availability of gender-affirming support from counsellors knowledgeable about transgender issues and challenges.
Not all gender diverse people need counselling, Pettman said, but having support available is key. Feelings of isolation and rejection can put gender diverse people at a high risk of depression, anxiety and self-harm, he said. Providing this support network can lower these factors substantially just by their mere presence, reducing the risk of self-harm by 85 per cent.
The CFEC recently received $10,000 in grant funding from the Prince George Foundation and South Cariboo Community Enhancement Foundation, offered specifically to provide support for unseen domestic violence happening to vulnerable populations during the pandemic. That funding allowed them to start training counsellors in gender-affirming counselling at the beginning of April. Pettman has also made sure to visually show the CFEC’s support for gender diverse people by putting up Pride flags throughout the CFEC offices.
“Before we did more the peer and group sessions whereas these are one on one sessions. They may not even be coming in for counselling regarding their gender identity but just knowing they can come in and not have to be questioned about their identity (helps),” Pettman said. “They may be coming in because they have anxiety about the pandemic but they’re also trans-gendered. We’re working on the anxiety but we also know how to use more inclusive language like they, them and ask for preferred pronouns.”
Amber Storvold was one of the counsellors who received the training and said the overall reaction to the more inclusive counselling has been positive. “We really want to make sure we have an inclusive environment and inclusive services as well,” she said.
Pettman’s advice is to strive to be an ally. This requires being willing to learn, listen, ask their pronouns and not make oneself the centre of the conversation.
“Trans folks and non-binary folks have been here since people have been here on Earth. Very often they have not been seen because they’re not in our history books, it’s a part of history that’s not recorded or has been erased,” Pettman said. “I think it’s good just to normalize gender as non-binary, it’s a spectrum and everyone is on a different place on that spectrum.”