Kristan Nelson is surrounded by toys. Some of them are cute stuffed animals, but they’re also tools for kids to learn to speak. Think of the letter ‘M.’ It makes the “Mmm” sound, like “Moose.”
Nelson is an Aboriginal speech language pathologist who specializes in pediatric early intervention, and she works at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre (VNFC).
While her goals are the same as any other speech language pathologist –to develop a child’s ability to understand and convey a language– at the VNFC there are additional aspects to her job.
“Here it is adapted to be responsive to relationship building, which is a big piece of supporting Indigenous populations, where there have been negative experiences with social services or mainstream health services,” Nelson says.
Nelson is an Indigenous woman herself, Cree Metis on one side, and Scottish Norwegian on the other, and while she can’t speak local languages she understands the need to incorporate them in her therapy.
“I don’t think there’s a world where I could learn all the local languages , or even really do them justice, so it’s a lot of collaboration with my coworkers and community members,” she says. “It’s about taking these basic learning strategies and implementing them in whatever language the family speaks at home.”
For Nelson it has also means learning a lot of cultural traditions and taboos that aren’t usually considered.
“For some cultures here it’s not appropriate to look in mirrors, and that’s a lot of what I do, so it’s trying to navigate that,” she says. “I’m really lucky here where most of the staff are Indigenous, and they teach me.”
Since here arrival in June Nelson has gathered a full client load of 25 children six years old and younger, as well as 15 other children on a wait list.
The most common issue she sees is “severe expressive language delays,” where young kids, typically aged three or four years old, are still only speaking one or two word sentences when they should be using five or six word sentence in past, present and future tense.
While these kinds of delays are seen across cultures, Nelson points to a 2018 report by Speech-Language and Audiology Canada that found language delays to be “one of the most prevalent development challenges for First Nations Children.”
“But that’s another piece that we’re trying to be very careful about, is not throwing labels on these little ones,” she says. “We’re working on collaborating with families and how they view their child and respecting them.”
For Ron Rice, executive director of the VNFC, hiring Nelson was an endeavor that the centre wanted to take on after noticing a need in their Aboriginal Supported Child Development Program. A three-year grant from the Ministry of Child and Family Development allowed for the hiring of Nelson in June, and has since made a big impact on local families.
“It creates success in so many other areas. I’ve had a parent say ‘We’ve only had three visits but already the child, its’ not that they’re speaking more… but now more than mom and dad can understand them and the child is less frustrated, and happy,’” Rice says. “It’s these kinds of things that are going to ripple in other parts of their life.”