In a student lounge at Nepean High School in Ottawa, Patrick Santos and Darcy Auger stand side-by-side and share a hand gesture with their pinky fingers up in the air.

“This is our tribe sign,” they said, almost in unison.

The boys have only known each other for a few weeks, but they’re nearly inseparable.

They met when 16-year-old Santos and his Grade 10 classmates from Nepean High School, in Ottawa, visited 17-year-old Auger and his peers in the Cree community of Calling Lake in Northern Alberta.

It was an eyeopening experience for Santos.

“I like how close everyone is,” Santos reflected. “Here [in Ottawa], sometimes you don't even know your own neighbours. But in Calling Lake, everyone wants to know you. I really like that community.”

'Partnering with a First Nations community seemed a powerful and immediate way to improve knowledge' - Connie Landry, Nepean High School teacher

In mid-April, 14 Nepean High School students spent a week at Calling Lake School to learn about Cree culture and life in the community.

Teacher Connie Landry applied to the YMCA Canada Youth Exchange Program to make it happen. Calling Lake, part of Bigstone Cree Nation, was one of the first schools to get in touch.

“As a second-year teacher of the First Nations Grade 10 History course, I continued to feel that the course lacked an authentic First Nations, Metis, and Inuit voice,” said Landry. “Partnering with a First Nations community seemed a powerful and immediate way to improve knowledge”

For the second half of the exchange, 13 students from Calling Lake School will spend this week in Ottawa. They’ll attend class, visit museums and Parliament, and take part in other cultural events.

“I was kinda scared at first, meeting new people,” said Auger, about getting involved with the exchange program. “But we got really close and it was pretty awesome.”

Although she enjoyed playing host in Alberta, 15-year-old Cheyanne Saddleback admits she was nervous to come east to Ottawa, but she's glad she did.

“I think it's really important, because you can meet new people and see new things in life that you can share with other people.”

Calling Lake First Nation school exchange

In mid-April, 2014, 14 Nepean High School students spent a week at Calling Lake School, learning about Cree culture and life in the community. (Connie Landry)

Learning about the Cree language and hearing stories from elders were highlights of 16-year-old Avery Sherwood’s week in Calling Lake. She’s proud to host her new friends at Nepean, and she’s thankful for her new knowledge of First Nations history.

“I did not know a lot at all,” Sherwood says. “We studied a bit in class … whereas experiencing just kind of gives you that knowledge that you can't get anywhere else.”

Together, students from both communities are proud to forge new friendships and break down stereotypes about life in a First Nation.

“It's not as bad as it seems, or what you hear [in the media]," said Santos. “You gotta experience it first hand. And you gotta base it off your own experiences.”

Saddleback agrees. “Don't judge before you know how it is,” she said. “You have to experience it.”

After creating such a powerful partnership, they want other schools to consider similar exchange programs.