Over 200 Cree youth more used to seeing ptarmigan, caribou and beaver got up close and personal with a few new species recently, including penguins, alligators – and Alouettes. A caravan of three full school buses left Mistissini October 19 for a Canadian Football League match in Montreal in an adventure that included a side trip to the city’s Biodome zoo.

At least a half a dozen kids from each of the other eight Cree communities participated as well, the goal being to get as many youth from the Cree Nation as possible. The youth, the Cree Health Board and Cree business raised $18,000 to pay for the trip.

The principal goal of the project was to teach educational values such as respect and to rely on one another; many of the youth on the trip come from troubled homes.

“We try to base anything we do on an educational learning experience,” said Mistissini Director of Youth Healing Services, Gordon Hudson. “This time they were able to take away the idea how important teamwork and counting on people is. They learned how to respect a little bit more.”

Though the Alouettes lost the game 30-20 to the Edmonton Eskimos before more than 45,000 spectators at Olympic Stadium, everyone was invited for dinner in the stadium and the kids were able to mingle with the players. In a classy move, the Als provided colour pictures for the kids to get the players’ autographs. Some kids even got their T-shirts signed.

A fun and unique part of the trip was the visit to the Biodome. The kids were awestruck by the exotic animals like desert lizards and colourful frogs.

“They were able to walk through all four hemispheres in a closed environment,” Hudson told the Nation. “With the things that are going on in the Cree Nation, the study of environmental impacts and so on, I thought it would be interesting to see what the other hemispheres were going through, such as the rain forests.”

They also took a trip to the Cosmodome where they learned what it is like to feel weightless. A ride on a mock space shuttle brought them into another world.

“It was a great experience,” said Mistissini firefighter Jeff Spencer. “Ottawa was nice, but this one was the best as far as interaction with the players. They really got to enjoy themselves.”

Spencer’s son, Zack, was nabbed by an Alouettes player at one point and brought around to help out with his interviews. The usually introverted youngster was all smiles. His dad said that activities like these help him to grow as a person.

“I thank Gordie every time I see him for the positive changes that have come in my son’s life. Zack loved it. They did a live segment on Global TV at 7:30 on the morning of October 20. For him he’s very shy and was bullied in school. Every trip we do like this just builds his character, builds his confidence level. I can imagine kids that have never gone out, just how amazing it is for them,” said his beaming father.

But Hudson said that people should thank the Cree Health Board, because without them, these trips would not be possible. “I just wanted to say hats off to them, I really appreciate their support.”

Spencer’s daughter Kayleigh was also a star. She conducted interviews in English for Global and in French for Radio-Canada. Both stations were impressed by her abilities.

A dose of reality reminded the kids that they weren’t in Eeyou Istchee anymore when the reception centre vehicle was stolen out of the parking lot during the visit. “It was last seen heading down the 15,” said Spencer. “Apparently some of the youth were looking out and thought, ‘I wonder where Clifford’s going.’ Then Clifford walked out the door and they told him his vehicle was stolen.”

Luckily, no one was injured in the theft and the insurance will cover the loss.

The trip also enabled Spencer to meet a youth whom he wished to send a message to. “I met a new young man this weekend and wanted him to know that I have a lot of respect for him. His name is Jordan Miller from Eastmain. As with all our youth, Jordan must know that we care about him and will give him assistance anytime he needs it,” he said.

“It was another really successful trip for our youth,” Spencer continued. “Sometimes people say these things are costly, but you know what? You can’t put a price on happiness for our kids. They are able to see that dreams come true.”