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Learning About Land-Based Programming in the NWT

 October 4, 2016
Posted by NWT Recreation and Parks Association
Jess Dunkin shares her experiences of the recent NWT On the Land Collaborative Fund learning trip.

By Jess Dunkin

It’s a sunny Tuesday morning at an urban coffee shop. Pedestrians trickle in to grab a hot drink or baked good on their way to work. At tables by the window, a growing group of people in hiking shoes and comfortable clothing gathers, while a pile of duffle bags and backpacks mounts in the corner. There are some familiar faces in the group, but also new ones. They make introductions and swap travel details and packing lists over cups of coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

This was the scene in early September at the Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀ in Yellowknife as members of the NWT On the Land Collaborative Fund embarked on their inaugural learning trip. Over three days, the group of 12 representing government, non-profits, industry, and charitable organizations visited four projects that had received support from the fund: Camp Connections, Edehzeh (Deh Gah School’s Willow Lake Camp), Salvation Army, and SideDoor. As the funders and community advisors paddled canoes, picked berries, chopped wood, fumbled with simple words and phrases in Dene Zhatie, and shared snacks and meals with project leaders and participants, they not only experienced different on the land programs, but they also developed a better understanding of the objectives, activities, and needs of fund recipients.


Watching fish dry, Edehzeh. [Photo: NWTRPA]

Power in Numbers

Collaborative funds are not new (the New York Community Trust, for example, has been supporting collaborative funds for 40 years), but they are growing in popularity. Collaborative funds are based on the premise that there is “power in numbers.” In other words, by combining resources funders can “tackle larger agendas, tougher issues, or long-term challenges.” Beyond allowing for greater capacity, funder collaboratives can be more efficient than the alternative, which means dollars go further. Collaborative funds can also extend the reach of philanthropic organizations into areas they want to support, but in which they don’t necessarily have the expertise.

The NWT On the Land Collaborative Fund was organized in 2015, in response to calls for a more accessible and streamlined process of applying for money to support land-based activities. The Collaborative brings together the resources and expertise of a diverse group of funders and community partners, including the Government of the Northwest Territories, Tides Canada, Dominion Diamond, the NWT Recreation and Parks Association, TNC Canada, Indigenous Leadership Initiative, and Aboriginal governments from across the territory. The first call for applications was issued in November 2015 with an application deadline of January 31, 2016. The fund received 209 applications requesting a total of 10.9 million dollars. Community advisors representing six regions and funders met in Yellowknife in February to review the applications and allocate funding. In the end, 35 projects received a total of $391,850.

Face Time: The Value of Learning Trips

One of the features of collaborative funds supported by Tides Canada are learning trips, immersive and interactive experiences that connect fund partners with grant recipients. Learning trips reflect the belief that successful collaboration depends on good relationships and good relationships are built through face-to-face interactions and shared experiences. Learning trips are valuable educational experiences for fund partners; they enable funders to have a better understanding of the places and people they are supporting. They can also be a good way to engage prospective partners. Not to mention, learning trips enhance the capacity of the collaborative, by allowing for direct feedback from grant recipients.



[Photo: NWTRPA]

Making Space for Culture

The NWT On the Land Collaborative Fund learning trip began at Camp Connections, 45 minutes east of Yellowknife. An initiative of the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, Camp Connections is a land-based program for children and youth in care. Started in 2003 as a one-week program, the camp has grown to offer 5 one-week sessions for 7-18 year olds. Campers come from across the territory, so at any one session, there may be kids from Ulukhaktok, Fort Good Hope, Hay River, and Yellowknife. In addition to director Nicole Garbutt, the camp has 7 staff—a camp manager, four leaders, a rover, and a cook—who feed, care for, and inspire up to 20 campers per session.

Each day of a seven-day session at Camp Connections has a theme that speaks to the camp’s core principals of self-esteem and self-empowerment: “I am capable,” “I am lovable,” “I am helpful,” to name just three examples. In addition to daily skits and discussion circles that further explore these themes, the camp promotes well-being through physical activity (canoeing, swimming, and games), healthy eating, and cultural programming. The vast majority of the campers are Indigenous, though few are being raised in Indigenous families. Camp, then, is an important place for them to connect with their cultural heritage.

Camp Connections depends heavily on grants, donations, and volunteers to maintain the site and deliver programming. The funds from the Collaborative are helping to improve the camp’s cultural infrastructure through the construction of a tee pee and tent frame. These two structures will provide space for actitivities, such as storytelling, beading, carving, and throat singing, delivered by local elders and knowledge holders. Investments in the camp infrastructure will also enhance Camp Connections’ appeal as a rental property, which in turn will help to generate income for the program and further site investments. Because Camp Connections serves kids in care, we weren’t able to visit the camp while it was in session. Nevertheless, we had a thorough and informative tour from Nicole and FFC Executive Director, Tammy Roberts.


(Photo: NWTRPA)


Standing (L to R): Berna Landry, Robin McLeod, Margaret Thom Seated: Margaret Vandell. [Photo: NWTRPA]

Edehzeh: Trails of Our Ancestors

From Camp Connections we travelled by float plane to a land camp at Shih K’eh Tue (Willow Lake) on the Horn Plateau in the south-central part of the NWT. As we arrived to the shore by boat from the plane, we were greeted by a sign welcoming us to Edehzeh, which means Trails of Our Ancestors in Dene Zhatie. The camp, which is only accessible by plane, is an initiative of the Deh Gáh School in Fort Providence. Deh Gáh is known around the territory for its innovative programming. Under the guidance of principal Lois Phillip, who is from the community, the school has prioritized land, language, and culture. Edehzeh bring those three things together in the form of a multi-week language and culture immersion program. Twenty-one people of all ages are participating in this year’s camp, which is overseen by three elders: Margaret Vandell, Margaret Thom, and Berna Landry.


There is a different pace of life at the camp. It is slower, for sure, but also more deliberate. Camp residents spoke about feeling more grounded and at peace while at Edehzeh.  They were also appreciative of the opportunity to leave behind cell phones, computers, and sugar. Edehzeh is unique for being a processed sugar-free initiative. This is just one aspect of the program’s commitment to healthy living, which also includes eating traditional foods. There is always a pot of tea on the fire and a bowl of bannock for those in need of a snack after hauling water, filleting fish, or doing math problems (school-aged residents have scholastic obligations while at camp). There are dedicated language classes each day, but the real value of this space as a place for language revitalization is the constant sound of Dene Zhatie as meals are made, ducks plucked, and dry fish hung. As language teacher Berna Landry noted on our first evening, learning Dene Zhatie is a multi-sensorial experience. It is best learned by seeing and tasting and smelling and feeling, as much as by hearing and talking.

Intergenerational land-based camps like Edehzeh are vital for immersing Indigenous youth in their language and culture. But they are also about healing and reconnection. All of the elders at one point or another spoke about their experiences in residential schools when their ways of speaking and praying were subsumed by English and Christianity. They spoke about being away from their families. They spoke about the consequences of this system for their communities: addiction, suicide, violence. Beyond teaching youth how to harvest or speak Dene Zhatie, Edehzeh reminds participants of the beauty and richness of their cultural heritage, as well as their strength as individuals and as members of a vibrant and resilient community. Mahsi to the Margarets and Berna for welcoming us to Edehzeh.


Edehzeh campers work together to prepare dry fish. [Photo: NWTRPA]

Small Steps, Big Returns

We returned to Yellowknife on Thursday morning, just in time for visits to the Salvation Army’s Mental Health Support Services and SideDoor’s Hope’s Haven. Before applying to the Collaborative Fund, “on the land” programming for Salvation Army clients consisted of picnics in Yellowknife city parks. With a small grant provided by the Fund, the organization can now list fishing, camping, and a community garden plot amongst their land-based offerings. And that’s just what they have been able to do so far. Plans are afoot for ice fishing and dog sledding once the weather turns cold. These activities benefit group-supported living clients, as well as those who access independent living supports. According to our host, Executive Director Dusty Sauder, a little goes a long way at the Salvation Army because staff dollars are already covered. The collaborative fund grant, in other words, helped to purchase equipment and experiences not part of the regular budget. Because the organization was able to invest this year in equipment, such as tents, sleeping bags, and fishing rods, they will be able to repeat some of these programs next year without additional support.


Dusty Sauder, Executive Director of the Yellowknife Salvation Army, delivers a presentation about their on the land programs to the collaborative. [Photo: Casey Koyczan]

SideDoor is taking a similar approach to land-based programming at Hope’s Haven, an emergency shelter and transitional housing program in Yellowknife for NWT and Nunavut youth ages 15-24 experiencing homelessness. About 85% of Hope’s Haven clients come from the foster system. Like the kids who attend Camp Connections, most have grown up in families that don’t share their cultural heritage. SideDoor is taking small steps to reconnect youth with their culture. Activities such as mitten making and drumming are already a part of SideDoor’s roster. They would like to broaden this aspect of their programming to include land-based programs. On the land activities cost money, however, and are often seen as secondary to the tasks of housing and feeding youth experiencing homelessness. This is where the Collaborative comes in. Again, with a small grant, SideDoor can create opportunities for youth to get outside. Director Iris Hamlyn thinks land-based programming is especially vital in the winter when youth are more likely to stay in their rooms. For this reason, dog sledding and time at the Bobby Drygeese’s camp are planned for this coming year.


Edehzeh [Photo: NWTRPA]

The term on the land programming evokes images of land camps like Edehzeh, but not everyone has the time, money, and capacity to participate in an extended camp far from their community. For this reason, the Collaborative values programs that meet participants where they are at. In the case of the Salvation Army activities, programs need to take place close to Yellowknife so that participants have access to supports such as the hospital should they need them. For clients of SideDoor, a feeling of disconnection from one’s culture is a barrier. Taking clients or residents fishing or dog sledding for the day may seem like a small step, but it is an important one. As both Iris and Dusty noted, these small steps can have positive consequences for clients, including decreased social isolation and increased self-esteem, not to mention the health benefits of getting outside and being active.

We wrapped up the learning trip in the common room of Hope’s Haven, with four Dene drums hanging over our heads. Made of caribou hide stretched over a birch frame, the drum is the sacred heartbeat of Dene culture. The drums were a tangible reminder of one of the objectives of this collaborative, to support the delivery of cultural meaningful land-based programs as a way to promote the health and wellbeing of NWT communities, families, and individuals. The Collaborative is still very new and there is much to learn about how best to support this kind of work, but if this inaugural learning trip was any indication, the future is bright.


[Photo: Casey Koyczan]

The next call for proposals to the fund will be released in Fall 2016. Visit the website, www.nwtontheland.ca, for more information.

Jess Dunkin is the On the Land Programs Consultant at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association (NWTRPA). The NWTRPA is an in-kind member of the NWT On the Land Collaborative Fund.