'I didn't realize I could have such a big impact': Katimavik focuses on reconciliation

Its budget was cut in 2012, but Katimavik is back with a pilot project that sees youth from the Tlicho region of the Northwest Territories and Eeyou Istchee, Que., engaging with other communities and volunteering for organizations.

16 Indigenous youth engage with communities in Saskatchewan and Ontario

Participants in the Katimavik program hike at Black Oak Savanna in Alderville, near Peterborough, Ont. Left to right are Phyllis Katapatuk, Desmond Georgekish, Lucas Spender-Otter, Damian Moar, Raymond Kawapit, Phil Abbott and Phoenix Gull. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

After his best friend died in a snowmobile accident in February, Ruben Dick started on a path of self-destruction, fuelled by depression and substance abuse.

Concerned family members encouraged Dick, 23, to apply to the Katimavik Indigenous Youth in Transition program. He agreed because it would provide him with the opportunity to create a better future for his infant daughter Delayna.

"People wanted me out of my community because I was going through a really tough time," Dick said.

Since 1977, Katimavik has been providing skill-building programs and work experience for Indigenous youth across Canada. Now the organization has partnered with the Tlicho government in the Northwest Territories and the Cree Regional Authorities in Quebec to allow Indigenous youth to develop skills for post-secondary education and employment.

Canoe day on Little Lake in Peterborough, Ont. Left: Dawn-Rayne Pachanos, Damian Moar, Phyllis Katapatuk, Ruben Dick and Raymond Kawapit. (Phil Abbott)

For the pilot project, eight youth are living in Regina and another eight in Peterborough, Ont., for five months.

All the youth staying Regina are First Nations from the Tlicho region. They work on a rotating schedule volunteering for organizations such as UR Pride and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

In Peterborough, the participants come from Eeyou Istchee Nation in northern Quebec. The Cree youth spend four days a week volunteering at organizations such as the Peterborough Youth Emergency Shelter and the Peterborough Communication Support System.

Both groups are also enrolled in an introductory university program which they attend once a week. A facilitator lives with them, co-ordinating their activities and providing guidance.

"What we're trying to do is promote civic engagement through different forms, but the basis of that is volunteering in the communities," said Andy Garrow, the Katimavik director of youth development.

Katimavik shifts focus

Garrow was brought on in 2014, when the organization shifted its focus to Indigenous youth and reconciliation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada final report in 2015 called for the federal government "to establish multi-year funding for community-based youth organizations to deliver programs on reconciliation."

"We're going to have that big focus on truth and reconciliation, and we want to have foundational learning happen in every Katimavik house," Garrow said.

Eeyou Istchee Cree Nation members in front of the Katimavik Peterborough house. Back row, from left: Phoenix Gull, Damian Moar, Raymond Kawapit, Desmond Gerogekish, Phyllis Katapatuk. Front row, from left: Ruben Dick, Lucas Spencer-Otter, Dawn-Rayne Pachanos, Phil Abbott (house facilitator) and Willow, a rescue dog. (Phil Abbott)

Katimavik will highlight the impact of colonization on Indigenous populations, said Garrow.

"They're going to learn about the contributions that Indigenous people have made in Canada."

The groups will learn about contemporary and local Indigenous issues and how they can make a difference through community placements.

"It's very much a youth development project where they are developing their own employment skills, personal skills and living skills," says Garrow.

Rhonda Apples, 20, and Shane Chocolate, 26, volunteer at a Regina community garden. 'We're doing great so far,' says Apples, from Behchoko, N.W.T. (Ria Carter/Katimavik )

For Rhonda Apples, of Behchoko, N.W.T., Katimavik offered a "once-in-a-lifetime experience." Apples, 20, has learned how to live with different types of personalities under one roof.

"Putting us all in one house, it's different — lots of compromises, but we're doing great so far."

Apples hopes her time in Katimavik will help her in giving back to her community through such programs as southern trips for sports teams.

"I would really want to be dedicated to the kids back home because it's so different from [Regina] — [here] we have so many opportunities — but up north, it's kind of isolated," Apples said. "I want to be one of the stepping stones to that."

New healing through old practices

Damian Moar, 21, said he has released a lot of negative energy by taking part in the program.

The Peterborough-area Anishinaabe communities of Hiawatha, Curve Lake and Alderville have been open and accepting of this Cree youth, sharing traditional healing practices.

"I've never really done any smudging, I never knew about these cultural medicines," said Moar, who is volunteering as a fire keeper at the Trent University teepee.

"There's not a set way to start healing yourself — I want to bring that back to my community," Moar said.

The eight Katimavik volunteers in Regina share a home for the 20-week program. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

Katimavik has provided an opportunity for these youth to step away from their communities and to be immersed in the unfamiliar.

"Being in a new environment, away from home, away from everyone that we know, it's overwhelming at first just because we don't see the same faces," Apples said.

Participants are challenged emotionally and mentally, but support one another.

"We're a family here. Whenever one of us is struggling with something, if we're missing home, we just kind of gather up," Apples said in Regina.

"We're trying to keep each other strong during these next few weeks."

 'Healing from the land'

The Harper government's 2012 budget cuts forced Katimavik to scale back. But in the 2017 budget, the Liberals announced $105 million for youth service initiatives. Katimavik program managers hope this translates to additional funding for the organization.

"We're hoping that through that initiative … we'll have some funding so we can restore our national program and begin having [more programs] in more communities across the country," said Garrow.

Dick said, "I didn't realize I could have such a big impact for the [Eeyou Istchee] Cree Nation."

After battling suicidal thoughts, Dick went to an institution in Montreal for treatment. Katimavik has inspired him to take new ideas to his community to help others who are struggling.

"When I go home I want to open up a program where the [Eeyou Istchee] Cree Nation can go to get healing from the land," Dick said.

"I thought about it this way. I've looked out a window in a doctor's office and see buildings, but what if I can talk to a therapist on top of a mountain, looking out on the land?"

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation in South-Central Ontario. She wants to contribute to turning the page on how Indigenous peoples are covered within Canadian media. Rhiannon is currently completing her master's degree in journalism at Ryerson University.

With files from Nichole Huck