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Carney students journey north

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Grades 11, 12 connect with Yellowknife First Nations
By Josh Tng


Catholic high school students in the Archdiocese of Vancouver often go on mission trips to help out in impoverished countries, but a group of Port Coquitlam students had their eyes opened by their school trip to Canada’s north.

Archbishop Carney Secondary students and teachers gained a startling perspective on the realities of Indigenous life and First Nations heritage when they made an educational trip to Yellowknife during the school year.

“We’ve seen issues of harsh poverty in the north,” said Reg Cichos, a math teacher at the Port Coquitlam high school. “We thought, we send people to other countries to do service. Why not to the poor in our own country?”

He and his wife Laura travelled with a group of Carney students to the Northwest Territories capital to learn the history and culture of local First Nations last October.

The 18 students, comprised of Grade 11s and 12s as well as Chinese international students, were plunged into a “learning immersion project,” Cichos said.

“Each day, students had time to reflect and lead prayer services. Retired Bishop Denis Croteau, OMI, came to speak to us twice. He gave us a historic perspective on the Oblate Fathers and their interaction with the First Nations.”

Bishop Mark Hagemoen of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese also hosted several activities, including leading them on a hike through the snow and at meal time serving up his famous 50-garlic-clove Caesar salad.

While there, the students found themselves experiencing how some Yellowknife aboriginal communities revitalize their culture. “We drove out to two communities, Dettah and Behchoko,” recalled Cichos. “Up north, the First Nations have their own self-government.” While visiting the Dettah Mission, the group and Bishop Hagemoen were hosted by Jim and Julia Lynn in their smokehouse.

Jim and Julia had three daughters by birth and an adopted son, Mark, who suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. After going missing last August, Mark was confirmed dead in September, just before the students arrived in Yellowknife.

“You hear about the suicides and the undrinkable water,” said Laura Cichos. “Here our kids really learn how these people live” and experience their struggles.

Jim shared with the students the importance of the talking circle for the Aboriginal peoples. It offered a chance to communicate together freely and openly, and created a sense of community among participants. “We sat in the circle and had this wonderful food,” recalled Laura.

Afterward, they visited the local gymnasium that was run by one of Jim’s daughters. “They played soccer for a good couple of hours with the local kids, and Bishop Mark joined in,” Laura said. “They’re all just kids, no matter where they live.”

“Seeing our kids at a completely unplanned get-together at the community centre, spending 2 1/2 hours with the local children and Bishop Mark, that was a really special moment for me ... for our kids,” said Reg.

Experiencing the daily lives of First Nations in Yellowknife also connected the students to the aboriginal culture. “In Behchoko, the chief/mayor of the community spoke to our students on the importance of their dying language,” Tłįcho, said Laura. “In the community, all children from kindergarten have to be taught the language so it becomes a part of their education. Everything gets translated into Tłįcho.”

She said the trip has given the students the opportunity to move past First Nations stereotypes. “They have a chance to go beyond them because of this trip,” she said. “Going on this trip has given them a chance to be more of who they are, hopefully to help them grow as people.”

The school is planning another class trip to the north this fall and hopes to add a service component.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 June 2017 10:59  

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