Every summer I attend a few First Nation gatherings. It is part of the tradition of my people to come together to socialize, learn, share and heal. Such events dedicated to young First Nation people I find the most beneficial.
It is sad but true that Aboriginal people of this country account for a large number of suicides. The terrible thing is that most of these untimely deaths involve our young people. I am grateful to all those First Nation leaders, organizational workers and community members for developing all types of programs aimed at suicide prevention.
One event, the Wabun Youth Gathering, which I attend every summer in July, is a leader in this area in terms of bringing together local First Nation youth from the communities of Wabun Tribal Council. This event has been running five years now so I have actually had the opportunity to watch the development of many of the young people who have participated in this gathering over time.
For most of these kids it starts when they are around eight years of age and they keep coming back into their teens. It always makes me feel good when I see these bright young people coming together in the spirit of the traditional gathering. Like all great events the secret in success has to do with the people behind the scenes.
At Wabun Tribal Council I give thanks to Jean Lemieux, the organization’s Health Director who dedicated herself to following through on the vision of an Elder, Thomas Saunders of Brunswick House First Nation. Before he died he asked Lemieux to develop an annual gathering where young people could get the help they needed to move forward in life. Lucky for Jean she had Mike Archer, Wabun’s Crisis Team Coordinator, to turn to. Mike, who is known as the big guy with a big heart, is one of those no-fooling-around, down-to-earth, get-it-done guys.
The Wabun executive and Chiefs immediately threw their support behind the idea of developing a gathering for Wabun youth and with funding help also from Health Canada, Mike and Jean launched the Wabun Youth Gathering. Most importantly, the Wabun young people showed up to participate in the gathering.
I know what life is like in a First Nation community. Often these communities are struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, long-term unemployment, crowded housing and a general feeling of hopelessness. The opportunity for a kid to actually be given the gift of a break in a safe, comfortable place, like the Eco Lodge in Elk Lake where the event is held, was amazing. These kids showed up ready to be entertained, well fed and cared for. They were in for a lot more.
The first thing they came to realize very quickly was that there were rules and that Big Mike was in charge. Things got a lot better after that and suddenly these youngsters were bonding with their peers from the other Wabun First Nations in workshops, exercises and activities with most having to do with traditional teachings and cultural knowledge.
I was pleased to see them mingle with Elders, like Vina Hendrix from Matachewan FN, as they learned from all kinds of facilitators about traditional crafts and art, survival skills, living on the land, healing through music, Native dance and drumming. All of these teachings were based on providing hope and a healing for the young participants. They did so under themes of respect and humility.
Lucky for me I got to participate in a lot of these teachings and I learned so much. I was also amazed at the strong support from our First Nation leadership. Stan Beardy, the Grand Chief of Nishnawbe-AAski Nation (NAN), actually took time out of his hectic schedule to visit the kids and share his thoughts of hope with them. This year he was joined by Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose, Ben Cheechoo, NAN Governance Secretariat Director and former Grand Chief of NAN, and Dr Emily Faries, Education Jurisdiction Negotiator, NAN Governance Secretariat.
Some might wonder at all the energy, time and money spent on focusing on these Wabun Youth. I can attest after five years of attending the Wabun Youth Gathering that I see real progress in real people who are now better equipped for dealing with life. I see young Native people who have expanded their view of the world through friendships with kids in other communities. I see these First Nation youth moving ahead with hope and attending post-secondary school and starting careers. Most importantly I see them taking what they have learned and bringing that back to their First Nations. I am reminded of that old saying, “Hope springs eternal”.