Life for a young person today is a challenge. They live in such a fast-paced world where much is expected of them. Back when I was a boy in my home community of Attawapiskat, I was outside most of the time playing with my friends or out on the land with my family. Today, young people are spending too much time indoors and on all kinds of devices hooked up to the Internet or used as stand-alone gaming platforms. I understand why young people are so wrapped up in technology today because I’ve also become addicted to this stuff.
This rings true even more so for First Nation youth. Even before this technology and the sedentary lifestyle it causes, Native people were experiencing an epidemic with diabetes and related health problems, such as heart disease. Now even fewer of our First Nation youth are getting the exercise they need. Neither are they getting those connections to family, friends or Elders in a healthy, personal or social way. Most of their contact is through a digital device and social media. They talk to each other on Facebook, texting and all sorts of instant chat or media-sharing services.
Some of this is beneficial but most of it is actually dangerous for the health of our young people. They need guidance in how to benefit from technology rather than get swept up by it and addicted to it. Big companies are making a lot of money on our naivety when it comes to these technologies. They need more grounded, closer-to-earth relationships that also provide some education and a healthier way to communicate.
Every year I attend the annual Wabun Youth Gathering held at the Elk Lake Eco Centre near Matachewan First Nation. I have the privilege of watching young First Nation children join the gathering from the age of eight and then move up to a senior level that ends at age 18 and graduation. Many of the youth I have greatly benefited from this gathering. Some have moved on in education, some are working in resource development and some sadly are having a difficult time. One thing that is certain is that all of them realize there is a better path to follow for their lives. They may not be on that path all the time, but they know where it is and they know what they have to do to have a good life.
Every year Jean Lemieux of Wabun Health and now Faye Naveau, Regional Crisis Coordinator for Wabun and the event coordinator, design a time for the youth that gives them a pause in life, some fun and teachings on critical issues. These youth receive counseling from experts, Elders and cultural teachers on suicide, teen pregnancy, bullying, alcoholism and addictions, abuse, and family violence. They do all this in a comfortable wilderness setting by the Montreal River, which some of their ancestors once used as a traditional highway.
Over the years I have watched these Wabun youth from different northeastern Ontario First Nations forge strong friendships. I have seen them develop from very shy and inward girls and boys to more confident teens with an idea of how things work and what it takes to lead a healthy lifestyle.
Thanks must always be given to the Chiefs of Wabun and their Executive Director Shawn Batise for having the vision to support a precious gift like this gathering for their youth. If a young Wabun individual learns how to deal with issues like teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug addictions, bullying and abuse, they have been given a powerful gift.
When I grew up nobody talked about any of these issues, so I really appreciate seeing these teachings now being provided to young First Nation people. It is amazing to think that more than a decade ago, a simple meeting between an Elder by the name of Thomas Saunders from Brunswick House First Nation and Wabun Health Director Jean Lemieux planted the seed. It was Saunder’s vision and dream that people and especially the youth be provided with a gathering that would allow them to forge strong friendships and to gain the knowledge needed to live good lives. It always takes just a few special people to make great things happen.