How connecting to land and culture is improving health outcomes for Indigenous youth workers

Through the leadership of local youth workers (Community Mentors) Alyssa and Shawnna in Walpole Island First Nation and Shayne, Terry and Jakson in Kenora Chiefs Advisory, 15 youth across Ontario have had access to new opportunities to connect to the land and their culture as part of the Traditional and Land-based Quality Sport program. The program is a Right To Play pilot program supported by Sport Canada.

Community Mentors experienced positive impacts on their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health through planning and leading land-based and cultural activities from August 2021 to March 2022, and youth participants reported an increase in their health and well-being. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of knowledge of culture and traditions, I’m just learning more myself in the last couple of years. My family are residential school survivors, and not raised with their culture. This work is helping me heal,” Alyssa reflects.

"The energy the youth give off is filling their spirits. It’s a very bonding experience." - Shawnna

In Walpole Island First Nation in Lake St. Clair in southwestern Ontario, Shawnna and Alyssa organized a fall duck hunt, hide tanning, ribbon skirt workshops and youth attendance at community ceremonies, which has led to change in the youth. “The energy the youth give off is filling their spirits. It’s a very bonding experience. They have created a little family. Other youth who aren’t in the program want to join because the regulars are so welcoming.” After going to ceremony for a few years, Shawnna has now been able to share the experience with youth and see their involvement in ceremony grow. “It has been amazing,” she says.

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"I became more health conscious and used every opportunity to talk to youth about nutrition and the benefits of exercising" - Jakson

In western Ontario on land with bush, a lake and beach, marsh, open fields and hills, Jakson and other Community Mentors led a family and youth camp for nearby KCA communities. The camp included a fall harvest, language learning, horseback riding, obstacle courses, fire building and cooking, snow shoeing and a celebration feast. “I can really see the impact of horseback riding on youths who are non-binary,” Jakson says. “I have observed that it has helped them to be happier and it has provided them an avenue to release stress.”

Through the activities at the KCA program, youth have learned about the Seven Grandfather Teachings, responsibility and relationships with animals, hunting skills, axe and fire safety, wood identification, harvesting materials, giving thanks to the land, sharing roles, leave no trace principles and more. “It has been great being outside, exercising and interacting with youth. I became more health conscious and used every opportunity to talk to youth about nutrition and the benefits of exercising,” Jakson explains.

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Alyssa, Shawnna, Shayne, Terry and Jakson’s leadership with the Traditional and Land-based Quality Sport program has contributed to positive impacts on their communities and beyond. Their experience will help inform Right To Play’s strategic priority to improve psychosocial well-being among Indigenous youth through increased access to land-based programming.

Reflecting on her previous work in schools, Alyssa expresses the importance of youth access to cultural and land-based activities in their communities. “Kids need something that’s not so institutionalized. Staff at schools are mostly non-Indigenous and can’t relate to the trauma our kids have experienced.” In her own personal experience, Alyssa says “connecting to that cultural piece has helped me find confidence and voice and advocate for myself.”

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