Nîkânîw leadership program helping aboriginal youth take the plunge

Lorie White was 15 when she joined the Nîkânîw program, which taught her water safety, first aid and leadership skills. She credits the program with giving her purpose and direction. Now she is leading the program to an even greater level of success.

'It just breaks our heart each year when we have to turn people who are interested away'

Nîkânîw means “one who leads the way” in Cree

8 years ago
Duration 3:12
Watch this video to see what happens in a typical week at the City of Edmonton's Nîkânîw program.

Looking back, 25-year-old Lorie White admits she was kind of lost.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had a lot of friends who had gotten into drugs, who had gotten into alcohol, so it would have been so easy for me to get into that as well."

But that all changed when she took the plunge at 15.

She signed up for a free aquatic-leadership program run by the City of Edmonton targeting aboriginal youth — a program called Nîkânîw, Cree for 'one who leads the way.'
Lorie White supervises the students in the Nîkânîw Aboriginal Youth Leadership Program. (John Robertson )

Participants spend one evening each week in the pool learning water safety, first aid and leadership skills.

They also cook, share a meal and learn traditional aboriginal teachings from local elders.

Before the program, White says she would "go to the pool, swim with my sisters and brothers and we would just play. I never actually thought of it as a way to exercise or as a job."

A decade later Lorie White is now a lifeguard, trainer and in charge of Nîkânîw — a program now expanding to a second pool, with double the number of participants, according to Michelle Brodie Cartier, supervisor with the City of Edmonton aquatic experiences and education.

The program currently accommodates 30 young people, but many others are added to a waiting list, she said.
Nîkânîw participants like Annika Keewatin spend an hour and a half in the pool training each week. (John Robertson)

"It just breaks our heart each year when we have to turn people who are interested away."

Beginning this fall, they'll take up to 60 applicants and be running at both the Clareview Community Recreation Centre and Jasper Place Fitness and Leisure Centre.

Aboriginal elder Francis Whiskeyjack remembers White as a bashful, quiet teenager trying to find her way. 

He says he's proud of the leadership and commitment she is showing in pushing to expand the program — one of the reasons why Whiskeyjack helps with the program. 
Local elders teach Nîkânîw participants traditional knowledge and values. (Courtesy: Brice Ferre)

"Basically, what I do there is give them inspirational talks. If need be to listen to problems, but mostly to ground people in rebuilding identity in who they are and where they've come from."

Whiskeyjack says having this leadership program in the swimming pool is a perfect fit because water is "one element that gives you the stamina, the energy, the strength, endurance; either by ingesting or swimming through it.

"It's very connected to mother earth."