If First Nations across this country are going to change for the better, it will be as a result of the efforts of our young people. They will become our leaders, our teachers, our bureaucrats, our medical people and our community builders. The attention, opportunities and education and training that we provide to these young Native people now will pay off for everyone in the future.
I have seen the result of taking the time and making the effort to focus on the betterment of First Nation youth. For many years now, I have been attending the Wabun Youth Gathering near Matachewan First Nation at the Eco Lodge in Elk Lake, Ontario. I have come to know many of the Wabun young people who have participated in this gathering for seven years now. I have seen so many of them grow by learning skills and tools passed on to them in traditional and cultural based workshops and teachings. I have seen the communities of Wabun Tribal Council, through the directions of the chiefs; provide a camp-like retreat where these First Nation youth have a safe, supportive, caring and positive environment to learn the necessary survival skills they need.
Renowned Aboriginal facilitators from all over North America have featured workshops and training sessions to assist young people with critical education and information about issues such as: suicide prevention, alcohol and drug abuse, family and personal violence as well as dealing with bullying. I have experienced firsthand, the changes that have taken place in many of the young people who have participated in these youth gatherings over the years.
When I first met Samuel Kloetstra, of Mattagami, at an early gathering, I noticed that he was a bright, intelligent and sensitive boy. He was also very shy and introverted. Over the years I have seen him grow to the point where he has become a chaperone for younger people and a role model. In fact, he was invited by the province to sit on the Ontario Minister’s Student Advisory Council. He is finding himself as a strong First Nation man. I know he is thankful for the efforts of the Wabun chiefs and staff for assisting him with traditional and cultural teachings. I am so happy and proud for him.
Jaimee Roy, a First Nation woman from Matachewan, is someone who has graduated from the Wabun Youth Gathering process. When I first met her, she was extremely shy but today she is a strong, confident and capable person. She has graduated with a college degree in the Social Sciences and will be taking a university program this year.
Jaimee, Samuel and all of the other fine Wabun Youth who have attended these gatherings will tell you that they are thankful to some key people for the opportunities they received. People like Jean Lemieux, Wabun’s Health Director, who responded to the wishes of the late Elder Thomas Saunders to provide a gathering where First Nation youth could receive traditional and cultural teachings. She kept her promise to Elder Saunders, of Brunswick House, to do her best to produce the means and venue where Wabun Youth could receive the skills and tools they need to survive. She did this in part by turning to Mike Archer, Crisis Coordinator for Wabun Health Services, with a request that he would create and manage an annual Wabun Youth Gathering. Archer, a burly man with an enormous heart, has managed to gain the trust of Wabun First Nation youth over the years and he has produced one of the country’s foremost Aboriginal teaching and healing gatherings.
Archer has succeeded in bringing together some of the best Aboriginal minds from across North America to work with First Nation youth on critical and important issues. He has created an environment where the facilitators work with chaperones from the First Nations, chiefs and Elders to create a safe and supportive climate for young people to speak out and to learn.
I have had many bad experiences dealing with tragedies in our First Nations. I have lost family members and friends to alcohol, drugs, violence and suicide. For a long time, I felt that nothing was being done or could be done to help our young people. Life for First Nations and in particular in remote First Nations is very difficult and seemingly hopeless.
My experience with the Wabun Youth Gathering has given me a new hope for the future. It also has made me realize that nothing will change for the better unless people step up to dedicate themselves to producing mechanisms that will help our young people.
The Wabun Youth Gathering is a template that I would like to see picked up by tribal councils and First Nation organizations right across Canada. I just wish we had more people like Lemieux and Archer to dedicate their time, energy and skills to our most precious resource – our First Nation Youth. We need to move on and out of the hurt, dysfunction and negativity our youth are living with. We need to give our youth the skills and knowledge to survive in a difficult and rapidly changing world.