Program aims to help Indigenous youth of 'in-between ages' to talk mental health, identity

Halifax's Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre is offering direction for an age group that's often missed.

Organizers at Halifax's Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre hope to create safe space for youth at risk

The "Who Am I?" workshop runs for seven weeks at the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre on Gottingen Street. (Submitted by Jenna Chisholm)

Organizers of a new program for Indigenous youth in Halifax want to provide direction and support for an age group that's often missed.

While the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre regularly offers programs for kids and young adults, until now there was little for youth in "the in-between ages," said organizer Jenna Chisholm.

She's running a seven-week workshop called "Who Am I?" that will cover everything from setting up participants' first debit cards to knowing where to turn in a mental health crisis. 

"When you're 13 to 15, you're very high risk for a lot of different things," said Chisholm.

"So we just wanted to give them a safe and comfortable space ... to just be themselves because a lot of times at school, they don't get that opportunity."

Chisholm said reaching youth before they enter high school could help prevent mental health issues or dependencies on drugs and alcohol.

Feels like home 

Maddy Watson is only 12 years old, but she's been coming to the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre for nearly a decade.

She was among the small group that gathered for the first workshop earlier this month. She has trouble making friends she can trust at school and wanted to figure out why. 

"I kind of want to work on some of my things that I have trouble doing," she said. "And maybe this will help me."

The centre might feel like home to Watson, but for youth who move to Halifax from First Nation communities across the province, that sense of belonging can be hard to find.

"Some people feel like they can't be themselves or they can't follow their traditions or have their culture in the city," said Shyla Robinson, who's organizing the workshop with Chisholm.

"So it's important to show them that you can still have your culture in the city. You can still be you."

Support in the city 

According to the Urban Aboriginal Peoples report from 2010, Halifax had one of the smallest per capita populations of Aboriginal people of the 11 cities surveyed. But the city was also attracting a growing number of mostly young Indigenous people at one of the highest rates.

As more people move off reserve, it's important for organizations like the friendship centre to connect with youth early on, said Chisholm.

She's originally from the Millbrook First Nation and started working at the centre when she was 15. She's gone through many of the youth programs she now runs. 

"I wouldn't be the same person whatsoever," said Chisholm. "I actually got into powwow dancing, drumming, that kind of thing when I was younger. So I wouldn't have had any of that had I not come here."

The "Who Am I?" workshop is held on Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons at the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre on Gottingen Street. 

With files from the CBC's Information Morning