Sitting in coveted shade at the Kahnawake Powwow, they looked like a group of old friends, joking around as they ate Indian Tacos, making silly faces for the camera. But just a week before, most of these young Cree leaders had never met each other; the only distance that trumped the one between their communities was the distance they all travelled to be in Montreal.

Ten promising, young Aboriginal leaders gathered in Montreal earlier this month for second annual McGill First Nation and Inuit Leadership Symposium, attending workshops and seminars and experiencing life at a university and in a city.

The attendees began easing into the program soon after arriving from Attawapiskat, Oujé-Bougoumou, and Wemindji. Though day one was filled with low-key activities, the remaining days included highly involved seminars. These included a diabetes prevention lecture from McGill professor Alex McComber, a Mohawk of the bear clan from Kahnawake, and a workshop on finding and projecting your voice from Ontario’s Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.

“All the workshops I’ve been to have really improved my perspective about everything,” said Alyssa Ottereyes, a recent high school graduate who will enroll at John Abbott College later this summer. “I’m learning all these important skills to be a leader, which I think will be really good for me, because I want to be a youth leader.”

Ottereyes is already a leader in her hometown of Wemindji, where she organized literacy programs and worked to alleviate drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers. A lack of activities in a town, she says, leave kids her age with few ways to alleviate their boredom outside of these vices.

“The Youth Centre already plans activities for them, but a lot of the youth don’t want to go, because a lot of the time the activities aren’t what they want,” she says. “Some youth don’t even speak up because some of them are too shy to say what they want in the community. I want to be the person anyone can talk to.”

The forward-looking 17-year old — she’s already planning on getting a degree in social work from Algonquin College after finishing CEGEP — wants to be a Youth Chief. She dreams bringing the youth of her community activities better suited to their tastes, but which emphasize tradition; she wants to set aside land near Wemindji for a cultural camp to reenergize the connection between the youth and the Elders of her community.

“I think there’s a lot we can learn from the Elders, and that happens once in awhile but what I would do is have it once every week, so all of us could connect with the Elders and share stories and learn our culture better.”

The symposium included an honoured Elder, Amelia Tekwantonti McGregor, who attended all the events, stayed with the kids, and added insight at the workshops. Unsurprisingly, she became a motherly figure to the kids, many of whom were use to neither the heat of the city nor the separation from their families; on the third day, tired kids were laying their heads on her shoulder for comfort.

But as much as the youth know they can learn from Elders, this program was designed to help position the 10 youth attendees to be the teachers, rather than the students. For example, the workshops focussed on ways to help kids through anger and depression issues. A hip hop dance workshop was the agreed favourite. The kids loved using an active, modern activity as a stress reliever.

Sonia St. Denis, who already teaches a dance class with four friends back in her hometown of Oujé-Bougoumou, highlighted the importance of fun stress relievers like this for healthy minds.

“You’ve got to find something you really like doing that will relieve your stress,” she said. “Dancing for me, it de-stresses me. It makes me want to help other kids find something they love, help them stop thinking about suicide, and help them be who they really are.”

The symposium began with a pitch from the organizers to Timothy Casgrain, a McGill graduate and former president of an asset management company in Toronto, who was looking to fund McGill-based initiatives. After their pitch was accepted, the organizers began planning a program to identify and nurture the skills Aboriginal youth can bring to their home communities.

“One of the philosophies we’re working from with this program is we don’t want anything built on a defect model,” said Lisa Trimble, a lecturer in McGill’s Faculty of Education and the symposium’s director. “We don’t think it’s smart to try to build what isn’t there or ‘fix’ anything. Instead, we’re trying to mobilize a community to build on what is there. So we’re trying to help these kids identify their strengths and teach them to build on them.”

One of the goals was help kids see ways to use the activities they already love as confidence-builders and emotional outlets, and spreading this to their communities.

“They talked a lot about using activities to get rid of your anger and your stress,” said Chad St. Denis, Sonia’s twin brother and, with her, the youngest participant at 15. “I use sports for that: hockey, soccer, any of them, really. I think a lot of kids can use sports to help them when they get angry or sad or if they’re thinking about suicide.”

Trimble, whose PhD research focussed on community-based education strategies and their engagement with sexual education, hopes that in addition to engaging and cultivating strong Aboriginal youth, the symposium will give kids a first-hand look at university education and the lifestyle that comes with it.

“We’re hoping to give young people who are interested in these kind of things — they may be thinking of going to a CEGEP or university or may not necessarily be an academic or school-based person — a taste of what life is like on a campus,” said Trimble. “And they can see there are other students like them wanting to create change in their communities.”

This look at life in a city is what most of the participants talked about most willingly. Being in Montreal and staying at McGill New Residence were just a taste of the king’s ransom of activities they enjoyed during their week. Evenings at La Cité and at the movies, a trip to La Ronde — which created some roller coaster fright stories — and, to top it off, an afternoon at the Kahnawake Powwow.

“The closing ceremony was a little depressing, because it’s sad that we’re leaving so soon,” said Ottereyes as she watched the powwow’s smoke dancers. “It’s been so fun, and I’ve learned so much. I won’t ever forget it.”