By Anita Grace –
What happens when you take a group of high school students from Kitchissippi to Northern Alberta? For students from Nepean High School, the answer includes cross-cultural understanding and respect, fast friendships, and a deeper understanding of Aboriginal culture and history.
“It was transformative,” says Connie Landry. The Nepean High School teacher was one of the driving forces behind a youth exchange that allowed 14 students from her Grade 10 First Nations history class to travel to the Cree hamlet of Calling Lake. Her students spent a week in April in the small northern community, learning about First Nations culture and forging new friendships.
The trip was arranged through the YMCA Youth Exchanges Canada Program and organized by Landry along with Sharon Loonskin and Jocelyn Arther, teachers from Calling Lake School.
Loonskin praises the Nepean students for being “very open-minded” when they arrived. “They didn’t have any stereotypes when they came.”
Landry agrees. “Our kids were so enthusiastic and passionate about learning about Cree culture,” she says. While the exchange was certainly educational for the Nepean students, Loonskin says the experience also gave the Calling Lake students new insight into their community. “It’s been a real eye-opener for them. It helped them see their own culture through someone else’s eyes – a peer’s eyes.”
“[The Nepean] kids came and were enthusiastic to learn about our culture and traditions,” she adds. “This reaffirmed and reawakened [our students] appreciation of who they are, where they come from, and what they have.”
From May 4 to 10, it was Nepean’s turn to host thirteen students from Calling Lake. It was a busy week of sightseeing and learning, along with some time for fun activities like laser tag, too.
Lorraine Cardinal, another Calling Lake teacher leading the exchange, says the youth really bonded with each other. “None of them looked at each other’s colour of skin. They just looked at each other as humans.”
Many of students admitted to being nervous before meeting each other, but they soon realized they had more similarities than differences.
“Everybody has respect for each other,” says Calling Lake student Jesse Wasp-Colin, 18. He assumed Nepean students wouldn’t be interested in his community when they first came to Calling Lake. “But the expression on their faces when we showed them our culture – they enjoyed it so much. That made me happy.”
The Calling Lake students have enjoyed their time in Ottawa. “It’s very cool to get to know people in a different province,” says Amelia Cardinal, 19. “This has taught me that people are not so different,” adds classmate Joseph Cardinal, 17.
Nepean’s Avery Sherwood, 16, says she fell in love with the people she has met through this exchange. “There is a part of me that will always be in Calling Lake.”