Why a cross-country ski program is a 'northern light' for Sask. First Nation

Montreal Lake is about 220 kilometres north of Saskatoon — and like many remote Indigenous communities, mental and physical health for the Cree youth is important.

Programming in Montreal Lake Cree Nation to help with mental, physical health, community member says

Spirit North is putting on a year's worth of sports programming in Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Cameron Roe)

Sean Lessard didn't grow up on his home reserve of Montreal Lake Cree Nation, but as the community's student success co-ordinator, he makes it there often.

Montreal Lake is about 220 kilometres north of Saskatoon and like many remote Indigenous communities, mental and physical health for the youth is a concern.

Lessard can hardly contain his excitement in talking about the community's partnership with Spirit North, a non-profit organization started by Olympian Beckie Scott, a gold medallist in cross-country skiing. It works with Indigenous communities to promote sports programming like cross-country skiing and canoeing.

"I just thought it'd be the perfect fit with Montreal Lake Cree Nation," Lessard said.

"The youth are hungry for programming and to learn different things."

Children in Montreal Lake Cree Nation try out cross-country skiing for the first time. (Submitted by Cameron Roe)

Lessard calls the program a "northern light" for the community.

"Mental health and wellness is a significant, significant gap. So we need to give kids opportunities to do different things," Lessard said.

"It's going to be something that's going to change our trajectory. I know that."

Like many Indigenous communities within driving distance of larger urban centres, teachers often commute and don't live in the communities. Lessard said that makes it difficult to foster successful after-school programs for the children who live there.

To ensure the success of the Spirit North programs, co-ordinators Cameron Roe and Nadya Crossman-Serb are living in the community for a year to help create sports programming.

Cameron Roe (left) and Nadya Crossman-Serb are leading the programming in Montreal Lake Cree Nation. (Submitted by Cameron Roe)

The first day they brought out the cross-country skis, two eight-year-old children wanted to race — before they even knew how to use them.

"We're really excited to be here for a long term and kind of develop more longer-lasting relationships and to be more ingrained [in the community]," Roe said.

Crossman-Serb, who was a sprint canoer with the Canadian national team, hopes to use her expertise in the spring and summer months. 

As a Métis woman, she said she's thrilled to be in a community like Montreal Lake.

"It feels like I'm giving back my knowledge … it just feels like the right thing to do for me," she said.

The programming so far has been a bright spot for the kids in the community, Sean Lessard says. (Submitted by Cameron Roe)

The plan for these two facilitators is to make their jobs obsolete by training community members to run their own programming. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the community to lock down and to close access points at times, making the programming challenging. 

But just like the stretches of untapped cross-country trails on the First Nation, the hope is that the co-ordinators can help youth find their own path to wellness through physical activity.

"It's actually metaphorically a path — a cross-country path — that we don't know exactly where we're going, but we know we need to start," Lessard said. 

"Let's start small, but start."