Thunder Bay

'I understand what it feels like to be different': Lakehead University student becomes stand-out teacher

A canoe trip in Ontario's Algonquin Park this week is a dream come true for Lakehead University's Jacky Chan, especially because he'll be bringing along a First Nations youth from northern Ontario.

Jacky Chan goes from university drop-out to prestigious 3M national student fellowship award

Lakehead University student Jacky Chan's passion for social justice takes him to Jamaica and Nepal, where he facilitates volunteer-driven service learning programs for youth. (Tikkun Youth Project)

A canoe trip in Ontario's Algonquin Park this week is a dream come true for Lakehead University's Jacky Chan, especially because he'll be bringing along a First Nations youth from northern Ontario.

Chan, who was named a 2017 3M National Student Fellow through the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, set the stage for the teen's experience at Camp Arowhon.

Taking a young First Nations person from an isolated community to the elite private summer camp is part of Chan's commitment to building relationships across culture, class, geography and race.

"I understand what it feels like to be 'different,' and I know how hard it can be — especially in a new place, to fit in and belong," said Chan, who struggled in high school and dropped out of university in 2010 because of a mental health issue.

Jacky Chan hopes more kids from northern Ontario First Nations will have a chance to enjoy summer camp at Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park. (Camp Arowhon)
He was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder, and later finished a degree in outdoor recreation; he then went on to pursue his masters, with a focus on Indigenizing perspectives and practices in education at Lakehead.

The prestigious fellowship reflects the work that Chan (whose father was a big martial arts fan who named his son after the legendary martial artist and actor), does, combining his love of play and his passion for social justice.

While at Lakehead, Chan started a penpal program between Jamaican youth and elementary students at Ogden Community Public School, an inner-city school in Thunder Bay.

'We have to build relationships'

He is the co-founder and director of Zen's Outdoor Leadership Camp for Youth, for whom he leads groups to Jamaica and Nepal, where he facilitates volunteer-driven service learning programs grounded in critical social justice initiatives.

Laughter can build relationships

"Before we deal with this issue of decolonizing, we have to build relationships of trust, and that can be done through laughter and play," Chan said.

He put that theory — and his training in laughter therapy — to work at Kingfisher Outdoor Education Centre this spring, running a laughter workshop for 18 First Nations high school students.

"Once we got the laughter train gathered, people were tearing up and laughing together," he said of the Kingfisher experience. "Teachers and students were saying 'what's happening here?' Some people went outside and had a good cry. 

"It changed the dynamic of the relationship," he added.

It's one of the students who took part in the Kingfisher program who is now a "shining star" at Camp Arowhon, Chan said.

"As much as subsidized camps are okay, bigger camps can offer more opportunities," he said of the Arowhon experience that he remembers well from his youth. "But we have to make it inclusive and welcoming."

Just a few years ago, a private camp like Arowhon might not have been a good place for marginalized youth, Chan said, but things are changing.

"Kids are recognizing their privilege," he said. "If they're inspired to give back to people ... it helps to get away from this segregating people by class."

Chan hopes that this year's experience will result in more First Nations youth being able to attend, and eventually work at Camp Arowhon.

As for the 3M Fellowship, Chan said it is "validation and motivation for me to continue on the path I am on."