Written by Danielle Moore, YAB Manitoba
Prior to our first retreat, the nineteen members of Waterlution’s Youth Advisory Board (YAB) had never met each other in person, working together only through online communication and video calls from our respective cities across Canada. However, leaving the retreat, it was as if we had known each other for years. I guess that’s what two-and-a-half jam-packed days of learning, listening, brainstorming and connecting with nature at the Cheakamus Centre (located on the traditional territory of the Skwxwú7mesh Nation) can do to a group of passionate youth! Nestled within a forest full of towering cedars and spruce along a small milky blue glacial river, the Cheakamus Centre was the perfect meeting place to begin our journey as leaders.
“Many of us, including myself, are beginning our personal reconciliation journeys, learning about Indigenous cultures and the history of colonialism in what we now call Canada.”
As the only YAB member from Manitoba, I arrived at YVR and jumped immediately into a rental van full of youth advisors from Ontario. Showing up fashionably late due to delayed flights, we finally arrived to the Introductory Circle simply awestruck by the incredible forested mountain views.
In our circle, each of us shared our hopes and apprehensions for the learning experience ahead of us. Many of us, including myself, are beginning our personal reconciliation journeys, learning about Indigenous cultures and the history of colonialism in what we now call Canada. We shared our vulnerabilities in our knowledge and understanding of this complex history, as well as our hopes to learn with open minds and hearts. In order to develop and curate resources and activities for the Great Canoe Journey, a youth-led initiative to engage school-aged children in a journey toward reconciliation, it was necessary that we engaged in our own personal journeys as well.
“We all agreed that by celebrating a diversity of cultures, our country would ultimately become more honest, more safe, inclusive, and resilient in the way it solves problems.”
Day one of the YAB Retreat truly set the context and foundation for us to plan and problem-solve for what was to come Day Two! We began the day off-site, learning about the Chaordic stepping stones to participatory and collaborative processes. The term ‘Chaordic’ is a combination of the words ‘chaos’ and ‘order’ and describes how we must find the balance between chaos to take the best path forward in project or initiative. Learning the ‘Chaordic Systems Thinking’ approach allowed us to explore and navigate complex issues that we also used to describe Canada’s own journey to reconciliation. Using the Chaordic stepping stones, we identified the need and purpose for the Great Canoe Journey, the people we needed to invite into it, and our principals and values.
Next, we found ourselves at the beautiful and almost cinematic Cheakamus Environmental Learning Centre to have open discussions about the complexity of culture. We looked at questions such as:
What defines culture? How does my culture shape my values, views, way-of-being and opinions? How can a generation who better understands and celebrates diversity, cultures and differences, impact Canada’s future?
These were the three questions that prompted several animated discussions in our group about what culture meant to us. Using the World Cafe model, we discovered that culture is defined by many different elements: from food and music, to where one feels a sense of belonging. Culture can shape the way we interact and perceive the world, and how the outer world interacts and perceives us. We all agreed that by celebrating a diversity of cultures, our country would ultimately become more honest, more safe, inclusive, and resilient in the way it solves problems.
After spending much of the day indoors, we were itching for some outdoor time. Henry and Matthew, father-and-son cultural educators from the Skwxwú7mesh Nation, led us through the forest, stopping every few metres to share stories and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Many of us from Central Canada could not keep up with Matthew leading the group, as we couldn’t help but photograph the beautiful landscape (we had never seen trees this tall before!) There was one cedar tree in particular that was jaw-droppingly massive! It took seven of us full-grown adults to fully wrap our arms around it in a giant hug. Matthew told us that traditionally, a tree this size would be used to build a cedar dugout ocean-going canoe!
“At the end of the retreat I had discovered new truths about leadership and what my journey of reconciliation will look like. Through the chaordic stepping stones, I learned that good leadership is collaborative, trusting, and inviting.”
After dinner, Henry shared with us the skill of working with cedar to make seemingly simple creations like a cedar rose and bracelets. His hands worked swiftly in a memorized pattern to make a cedar rose. Within seconds of beginning his creation it was already finished. I had to watch him explain and demonstrate the process four times and I still had trouble! Throughout the weekend Henry set up stations of damp cedar bark, guiding interested YAB members in the craft. At the end of the weekend a couple of YAB members got quite good at working with cedar!
“It is through story and connection that I have been able to gain a better understanding of systems of oppression that have existed and continue to persist within Canada.”
Day Two of the Retreat was spent sharing water stories, planning, brainstorming, collaborating, and filming videos. Although we had spent a couple months preparing and brainstorming for the Great Canoe Journey, this day felt like a significant day of action! With the tools and lively discussions still fresh in our minds from Day One, we hit the ground running in a day of collaboration! I could never capture all of the little moments, experiences and activities that filled the retreat weekend (like when we found a floating log in Cat Lake and all the YAB members played a game of log balance), but that would be a very long blog so I’ll leave you with my top two takeaways instead!
At the end of the retreat I had discovered new truths about leadership and what my journey of reconciliation will look like. Through the chaordic stepping stones, I learned that good leadership is collaborative, trusting, and inviting. Rather than giving orders from the top down, leading in complex situations requires collective intelligence and creativity to discover innovative solutions that are usually better than any single person might have come up with on their own. As someone who is still learning about Indigenous cultures, history, and the injustices of Canada’s past (and continues to happen in the present day) to Indigenous peoples of Canada, my role has taken that of a learner and a listener. I was extremely appreciative of Matt and Henry for sharing their personal experiences with us. It is through story and connection that I have been able to gain a better understanding of systems of oppression that have existed and continue to persist within Canada. I hope to continue on my journey of learning, while also inviting fellow Canadians to learn along with me.
With hearts full of shared experiences, and minds full of stories and lessons, we departed Day Three thankful for the time spent together, for the organizers of the retreat, for our teachers who took the time to share knowledge with us, and for the land which became our learning grounds for the weekend. All nineteen of us are now ready to work with school groups across Canada to help them explore the local Indigenous cultures within their communities!
Huy chexw! Thank you!