British Columbia

More supports needed to keep Indigenous youth active, say health advocates

A conference in Vancouver this weekend explores health and wellness in remote Indigenous communities.

Vancouver conference explores health and wellness in remote Indigenous communities

Casey Desjarlais, a Cree powwow dancer, says performing traditional dance has improved her physical health. (Casey Desjarlais/Facebook)

When Casey Desjarlais watched her daughter step into her first powwow, the "proud-mom" feelings took over.

"She was dancing, and tears of joy were just coming down my face," said Desjarlais, a Cree woman who started dancing at age five.

For Desjarlais, it wasn't just about watching her daughter overcome her nerves. The moment also represented triumph over Canada's legacy of assimilation.

Powwows were banned by the federal government under the Indian Act in the late 1800s.

"For me to be dancing and my daughter to be dancing — it's a lot of respect that I have to my ancestors who fought really hard to keep these traditions alive," she said.

Desjarlais is one of many community advocates speaking at the National Indigenous Physical Activity and Wellness Conference in Vancouver this weekend, where community leaders and advocates will meet with the goal of getting Indigenous youth more physically active —  through sports and traditional practices.

Community hurdles

Desjarlais, who grew up in Saskatoon, said dancing has helped her maintain both her mental and physical health.

"It takes a lot of energy and endurance to dance powwow — it taught me how to respect myself in regalia and also without regalia on," she said.

But she says acquiring traditional regalia can be a challenge — the materials can be expensive. She says many children are also unsure of where they can go to participate.

Brigette Lacquette battles with USA's Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson at the women's world hockey championships in 2016. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Gaps in sports

According to Rosalin Miles, a UBC research associate in Indigenous Studies in Kinesiology, there are similar hurdles that prevent Indigenous youth from participating in organized sports, particularly in remote communities.

"The biggest barrier is parental support — having people that are available to help coach, [provide] transportation and be healthy role models to make sure their children are being active," said Miles.

Miles is also a member of the Lytton First Nation. She says there's little in the way of funding supports to get youth engaged in sports and many communities often turn to fundraising to cover the costs of transportation and equipment.

"It's very similar to a lot of non-native [sports] teams in Canada — however, you're dealing with a community that doesn't have the same resources," she said.

Olympian Brigette Lacquette is the keynote speaker at this year's conference. Lacquette won a silver medal with Canada's women's hockey team in Pyeongchang.

"It's loud and clear that perseverance and resilience pays off, and so does hard work," said Miles. "With her being in the Olympics, on that world stage — it's achievable. It gives a lot of people hope and inspiration."

The conference takes place Saturday and Sunday at UBC's Life Sciences Centre.