Indigenous youth learn to care for the land — and each other
Land-based education goes hand-in-hand with traditional knowledge for youth in Manitoba and British Columbia
On a hot day in August, a group of Indigenous youth from across Manitoba gathered in Duck Mountain Provincial Park. They spent the day helping to maintain a stretch of the Trans Canada Trail: picking up garbage, fixing trail signs, building boardwalks and log paths, and clearing brush and branches that were starting to encroach on the path.
The young people are all participants in the Outland Youth Employment Program (OYEP), a six-week experience that provides land-based education, training and work opportunities.
The expansive woodlands are home to an array of wildlife and vegetation that youth are learning to interact with and maintain through the program.
Nineteen-year-old crew leader Blaze Head says he wants to help youth receive opportunities to work in the natural resources sector in the same way he did.
"When I first started, I saw it as an opportunity to get myself out there and be able to reach out to employees better, get opportunities for myself," said Head.
"I'm all about that for my youth. I wanna see them succeed like I did."
Head is from Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba and this is his fourth year working with OYEP.
Throughout the six-week program, Indigenous youth develop skills like tree planting and wildfire management while also learning about logging, mining and the environment. They also learn about Indigenous medicines and the importance of protecting sacred ground.
Last year an Elder from Head's community met with OYEP participants at the grounds of an old residential school where they built sweat lodges and tipis.
"It was actually really good for the youth … to be able to see that," he said.
"I'd like to show them what's out there [because some of them] aren't really introduced to their teachings."
The youth also bring their own experiences and knowledge to the program to share with each other in areas like medicines and the importance of protecting the environment.
Kenton Sangster, who grew up in Misipawistik Cree Nation, found out about OYEP through a youth guardians program.
"I've always been outside fishing, hunting and playing in the bush," he said.
Sangster said that he knows quite a bit about plants and enjoys sharing that knowledge with other youth in the program.
Youth supporting youth
"These young people are my motivation," said 18-year-old Neepin Cook. "You meet them and you talk to them and you hear about all their stories and everything they've been through."
Cook, who is a crew leader in training, says that the program helps young Indigenous people to dream bigger and imagine more possibilities for themselves in the future.
She says the program can help participants move through intergenerational trauma they may have experienced growing up.
"I think it's very intimidating when you have such fragile youth that don't know what's out in the world," said Cook.
"They're facing all these problems and then they're expected to just go out of the world and live where they don't know how."
Cook grew up hunting and trapping with her father and says she always knew she wanted to help support natural resource sustainability for her community and other Indigenous people living off the land.
OYEP has been a pathway for Cook to pursue that dream.
Stewardship of knowledge
OYEP isn't the only program connecting youth to the land.
In southeastern British Columbia, a Guardians in Training program created by Aq'am, a member community of the Ktunaxa Nation, introduces young people to their community and each other to preserve traditional knowledge.
"We invite knowledge holders and elders to spend time with our youth so we can provide an opportunity for transfer of knowledge," said Bonnie Harvey, who works with youth in the program.
This summer, the young people interviewed Elders out on and around their territorial wetlands.
The Elders shared songs, stories, laughter and love with the students, according to Harvey.
"It's important that our children and our youth feel the love and know that there are people in this community, in this world that care about them and love them," she added.
The program also introduces students to different professionals and potential employers, who help them along their journeys and assist them in getting certification and training to make them more employable.
Harvey says the guardian program ensures that valuable traditional knowledge will endure for generations to come.
"Many people know many different things, yet not one person can hold all of the knowledge," she said.
"That's what our responsibility is … to ensure that knowledge is shared."
Written by Rhiannon Johnson and produced by Kim Kaschor.