Feds fund 'life-changing' Indigenous youth program in northern Sask.

The federal government is putting $2.2 million over five years into Project Venture, a youth program meant to engage hundreds of high-risk Indigenous youth in the Clearwater River Dene Nation and La Loche communities. The program was previously shut down when the former federal government cut its funding.

$2.2 million for crime prevention program that connects youth with culture, land and each other

Project Venture operates on six values: let go and move on, speak your truth, care for self and others, be safe, be here and set goals. In the photo, participants are seen at Dupre Lake. (Submitted by Mandy Herman)

The federal government is putting $2.2 million towards a youth crime prevention project in northern Saskatchewan. 

It's expected to involve about 450 high-risk Indigenous youth from the Clearwater River School and the La Loche Community School. The money for the Clearwater River Dene Nation Project Venture comes from the National Crime Prevention Strategy and will be distributed over five years.

"It's targeted at the youth who need it the most," local program manager Mandy Herman told CBC News.

The year-round program uses games and outdoor activities, including fishing and trapping, to teach young people about their Indigenous culture, as well as life skills such as problem solving and communication — but they "don't realize they're learning," Herman said.

The program also aims to reduce substance abuse, drug-related crime and interpersonal violence. 

Mandy Herman says the youth are all smiles, rain or shine, when they are out reconnecting with their land and culture. (Submitted by Mandy Herman)

Herman said this is the first year this version of the program existed for the Clearwater River Dene Nation, but they've already noticed how the youth have become more outgoing and involved. 

"It's so amazing to see the smiles on their faces," she said. "It's totally different and totally life changing for all of us involved."

"Everyone's not grumpy there. That's what makes it better, I guess. Everyone's not grumpy. They're always having a great time," 13-year-old Chantler Lemaigre said.

"I think it's really great and fun and you learn a lot from it," he said. "I learned that you have to respect things in a lot of ways."

Lemaigre's favourite activities include swimming, playing capture the flag and seeing his friends, old and new.

Teenage mentors work with the youth who are in Grades six, seven and eight. 

The program fills a gap in the community, youth mentor Ramsa Montgrand said.

"I think it's important to have this program in the community because there's not much things to do for the youth."

‘Home is where the heart is and for me it’s La Loche and Clear Water,’ said program manager Mandy Herman. She took on the role of program manager after returning home from nearly a decade of work in Fort McMurray. (Submitted by Mandy Herman)

Montgrand, 17, lives in La Loche and said Project Venture has become a constant for the young people there: "They always ask when the next activity is going to happen."

Montgrand said the cultural emphasis is crucial for the youth — and herself. Without culture,she said, she would feel lost.

"Since I was little I've been doing cultural stuff with my parents and grandparents and it wouldn't feel the same [without it]," she said.

In the beginning, the kids were shy and wouldn't communicate with one another, Montgrand said.

"Once they started to get to know each other, they're outgoing, they have a creative mind. They think of other ways to do stuff," she said. "It's a good feeling because you know you're doing something right."

At times, Herman said, the town and the reserve have felt separated, but the program has helped bring them together. Families, school staff and local organizations are all involved: "This program is really helping the two communities build strong relationships."

The program helps adolescents to turn off their technology and form friendships with each other. 

"Then they have that lifelong friendship that someone, another positive person that they can fall back on, a shoulder to cry on," Herman said.

​Mandy Herman described one youth who opened up at summer camp, saying she said ‘I feel like a kid again. I’m playing all day long and this is so fun. I haven’t felt like this in a really long time.' (Submitted by Mandy Herman)

Project Venture involves before and after school activities, peer leadership and counselling, community service learning as well as canoeing, fishing, trapping and hiking trips in the summer. 

It has existed in La Loche earlier, but the previous federal government axed funding for it. The community called attention to its absence in the wake of last year's tragic shootings in La Loche and pointed to its success.

At the time, Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said the experiential development program for high-risk aboriginal youth was important so kids could feel good about themselves and their heritage.

Greg Hatch is a chair of the Project Venture Advisory Committee and principal of La Loche Community School. He welcomes the program that he says has a long, successful history of 'helping Indigenous youth become positive leaders in their communities.' (Jason Warick)