Workshop builds trust between Indigenous youth, Edmonton police
‘A really great step,’ says teacher Terris Mah
Indigenous youth from around Alberta are working alongside officers from the Edmonton Police Service in an academy program designed to build relationships between them.
Twenty-five young people from several school divisions are a part of the two-week program which is happening following a call to action from the Indigenous community.
"There was a need to make the relationship stronger between the aboriginal community and the police," explained Terris Mah, the teacher leading the program called "Oskayak," which is Cree for youth.
The workshop was developed by Indigenous community agencies in collaboration with Edmonton police and the Edmonton public and Catholic school boards.
It's being held at Amiskwaciy Academy, an Edmonton public school which reflects the cultures, values and traditions of the Indigenous community.
"It's a really good program, it taught me leadership and how to get out of my comfort zone," said Theron Auigbelle, 14, from Alexander First Nation northwest of Edmonton.
Auigbelle said the class had given him an insight into the work police do. It also exposed him to cultural activities that brought him pride.
The students, who are between 14 and 18, have already made their own hand drums. They also took a trip to gather traditional medicines such as sweetgrass and sage.
The program has included an education about policing directly from officers who are in the class alongside them.
It offers a close-up look at the police K9 unit, the tactical team, and a chance at taking on a police obstacle course, as well as guidance from officers in the classroom each day.
"I've heard staff members say we have kids here who don't go to school all the time and they're here every single day, " said Sgt. Alanna Harrison, a 14-year veteran who said the program is a good way to build respect.
"There wasn't a great relationship between police and our Indigenous youth," said Harrison, pointing to a historical tension and mistrust.
Harrison is now part of an Indigenous relations unit in the Edmonton Police Service.
She said the academy, now into its third year, is her favourite two weeks on the job. She said students earn three high school credits for volunteerism and leadership.
The volunteer part happened Tuesday as the teens made 150 sandwiches and handed them out to Edmonton's homeless population throughout the city's downtown.
"It made me feel good," Auigbelle said. "I think what I did is I gave them hope that they're not completely alone."
The gesture was welcomed by those on the street.
"I think it's absolutely wonderful that they care enough to pass out lunches to everybody. It's nice to know that they're reaching out to our community," said Jen Halfe, who was sitting in the shade on the sidewalk when she was passed a brown lunch bag by one of the students.
Mah said while the kids were pleased to be able to give back, the lesson was bittersweet when they ran out of sandwiches without being able to feed everyone.
Nonetheless, he said, a key part of the program is its hands-on teaching of values and the importance of not being a bystander whatever the situation.
"I'm feeling happy and sad," Auigbelle said. "Happy that I gave to them and sad that there's so many of them."
Harrison said handing out the food also encourages youth to think about how to approach and talk to people who need help.
Recruitment not the main goal
She said recruitment is not the main goal of the academy but is pleased to hear some of the students are now considering a career in the police as a result of the program.
Auigbelle isn't yet sure what career path he'll take, but believes the grounding he's getting from the academy can only help him in the future.
And he's already planning to share the cultural teachings he's learned.
"The knowledge (has been) passed on to me now and I'll pass it on to my kids and their kids and my family," he said.
Mah said the safe nature of the workshop fosters a strong learning environment. Police officers learn more about Indigenous youth while the students build relationships with them and, in turn, develop confidence to become role models in their communities.
He said it's heartening to see the kids opening up to the officers and letting their guards down.
"They're really seeing the police as people and it's really meaningful."