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“Doing Things Differently”: The 2017 NWTRPA & Youth Centres Conference

 December 7, 2017
Posted by NWT Recreation and Parks Association

When the NWTRPA Conference last visited Inuvik in 2010, there were 43 delegates. This year, the conference was attended by more than 120 people, representing every region in the territory! The Conference was a success by other measures as well. The NWTRPA often receives positive feedback about the annual gathering, but a number of attendees observed that there was something special about this year’s event. Part of it was the place: Inuvik was a wonderful host community, warmly welcoming delegates and offering them lots to do when the conference wasn’t in session. Part of it was the people: the Conference was attended by not just any 120 people, but 120 committed and enthusiastic people passionate about recreation, active living, and community development. As important, however, was the program: the conference committee, inspired by the NWTRPA’s commitment to decolonization and “doing things differently,” created a program that sought to educate participants about the historical and contemporary relationship between recreation and colonialism, while also highlighting communities and programs charting a new way forward.

Aware that truth must come before reconciliation, we invited Crystal Fraser to open our conference with a keynote about recreation and sport at residential schools in the NWT. Crystal is Gwichya Gwich’in, originally from Inuvik. She is currently finishing a PhD in Canadian History at the University of Alberta; her research focuses on the history of residential and day schooling in Inuvik from 1955 to 1996. Crystal’s presentation opened with a brief history of the residential school system and its relationship to other colonial policies, like the Indian Act. The focus, however, was on understanding how recreation and sport figured into residential school life in the North.

Common activities at Northern residential schools included skiing, hockey, curling, basketball, broomball, and Scouts and Guides. Crystal’s presentation made clear that sport and recreation were used by administrators as part of the “civilizing” mission of residential schools. She spoke, for instance, about the TEST Program, a ski training program in Inuvik meant to “racially uplift” young Gwich’in, Inuvialuit, and Métis students. At the same time, Indigenous children and youth turned to recreational activities to survive the many difficulties, and in some cases horrors, of residential school life. Continuing with the example of the TEST program, Crystal recounted how some students saw the ski trails as an escape from the physical and sexual abuse they suffered in the hostel. Throughout the presentation, Crystal demonstrated the diversity of experiences that students had. Some remembered their time at All Saints or Stringer Hall fondly. Her presentation also made clear that while many students suffered hardships as a result of the system, they were not passive victims. Rather, through actions large and small, students sought to improve their situations and challenge the schools’ goals of assimilation.

Following Crystal’s presentation, conference delegates participated in small group discussions. For some, but especially the residential school survivors in the room who had lived this history firsthand, these were familiar stories. For others, including some intergenerational survivors, the information was new. The small groups provided an opportunity for people to share their personal stories, their thoughts and feelings about the presentation, and their questions. More than this, they prompted discussion about alternative ways of doing things in our respective institutions going forward.

Organically, these groups met one of the organizing committee’s goals to create spaces at this year’s NWTRPA Conference to think about how those of us working in the recreation, sport, and health sectors might do things differently in our organizations and in our programs. How might we create programs and work spaces that reflect and honour Indigenous ways of knowing and being? How might we, through the activities that we offer and the way that we work, nurture Indigenous self-determination and resurgence?

To help us to imagine what is possible, we invited individuals, organizations, and communities actively working to heal the deep wounds of colonialism to share their stories. As just one example, during Tuesday morning’s keynote, delegates learned about a Yukon community that is taking steps to undo the negative legacies of colonialism and create a healthy, vibrant community by reconnecting its young people to the land and creating sustainable economic opportunities for its citizens. This presentation, entitled “Achieving a Recreation Destination,” was delivered by Justin Ferbey, currently the Deputy Minister of Economic Development with the Yukon Government and President of the Yukon Development Corporation. Previously, Justin was the Chief Executive Officer of the Carcross/Tagish Management Corporation.

Carcross/Tagish is a self-governing first nation that spans the boundary between Yukon and British Columbia. When the self-government agreement was signed in 2005, Carcross/Tagish was a community that was struggling: there were few economic opportunities, youth were disengaged, and housing was insufficient. Tourism at that time primarily consisted of tour buses stopping in the community for photos and an ice cream cone. The community recognized, however, that this was untapped potential, especially given the growing interest in outdoor recreation experiences and Indigenous cultures. With its beautiful natural surroundings and vibrant Tlingit-Tagish culture, Carcross/Tagish was perfectly poised to build a local tourism industry that would encourage people to linger in the community.

The community established a management corporation to assist in the creation of “a year-round cycle of sustainable jobs and business opportunities for the community, our First Nation, and the Yukon.” The corporation took a four-pronged approach: create a “niche” market (outdoor enthusiasts, but especially mountain bikers); develop retail opportunities to service this market; build accommodations to “overnight the market”; and, lastly, house the market (Carcross/Tagish is a commutable distance from Whitehorse). Underpinning this strategy were the following principals: balancing people, planet, and profit; addressing poverty through training, entrepreneurship, and mentorship; and distributive justice.

Justin described three different, but overlapping projects to the delegates. The first, Single Track to Success, inspires youth to build mountain biking trails on nearby Montana Mountain. More than a trail building program, Single Track to Success offers young people opportunities for mentorship, while also promoting healthy lifestyles. The second project, Carcross Commons, was developed to service the retail needs of visitors to the community, though it has also supported the revitalization of cultural practices like carving. The community is still without a hotel. However, great strides have been made in housing community members through the Tiny Homes Project. This program is a cross-cutting strategy, which is to say that it simultaneously addresses unemployment and housing issues. Young people develop practical skills, as well as confidence as they learn how to design and build tiny homes. The community further benefitted from this training because they were able to hire program graduates to build the community’s new $15 million Learning Centre.

Justin’s keynote was one example of a community “doing things differently,” but other examples could be found in the stream sessions. As in previous years, the conference had multiple streams; delegates could choose from: Leadership, Elders in Motion, Youth Centres, and On the Land. The program committees for each of the streams actively sought out organizations and communities developing and implementing recreation activities and programs that support Indigenous self-determination and resurgence. Conference attendees were inspired by Arctic sports and Dene games, community-school partnerships in delivering land-based programs, trauma-informed practice, and youth-directed programming, to name just a few.

The Activities and Tours on Wednesday afternoon were also meant to educate and celebrate. Some of the delegates participated in the Kairos Blanket Exercise, an interactive learning experience that explores Indigenous-Canadian relations over the last 500 years. The Blanket Exercise uses a participatory approach to help learners understand things like the Indian Act, the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop, and more. Other delegates chose to take part in an interactive demonstration of Arctic Sports and Dene Games, a celebration of traditional activities that have survived in spite of colonialism.

The Awards Banquet and Bright Spots session gave the conference a celebratory air. On Wednesday evening, delegates gathered for a delicious meal and an opportunity to celebrate five people for their “continuing efforts and achievements in promoting recreation and active living for all Northerners.” Award recipients included: Faith Raymond, a young Inuvialuk woman from Inuvik whose commitment to improving the quality of life in her community is evident in her work with youth, her photography, and her participation in national youth forums; Krystal Thomspon, a body positive activist and yoga therapist based in Yellowknife who works with Indigenous youth, women’s organizations, and the LGBTQ+ community; and Marie Horassi, a Dene Elder from Fort Simpson who stays active by attending community events, helping with the garden at the Elders Home, and preparing traditional foods. The evening concluded with a lively performance by the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers. Delegates had the opportunity to participate and learn some of the Inuvialuit dances.

On Thursday morning, conference attendees were treated to presentations from three inspiring and diverse active living programs from around the territory during the Bright Spots session. The first, Project Jewel, is a land-based wellness initiative of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. Project Jewel team Meghan Etter, Jimmy Ruttan, and Peggy Day shared how the program supports Delta residents of all backgrounds in managing stress, grief, and trauma. The second Bright Spot, Diamond City Roller Derby, sells itself as “a sport, a fitness pursuit, and an opportunity to make friends with harmless, loveable weirdos.” The presentation about Yellowknife-based roller derby league, was given by the organization’s secretary, “Honey Basher,” otherwise known as Erin Nelson. The Bright Spots session concluded with the Table Tennis for Elders program from Fort Providence. Table Tennis North’s Executive Director, Thorsten Gohl, shared the joys and benefits of table tennis for older adults and youth alike with delegates.

The final session of the conference explored how we might create land-based spaces for the exchange of knowledge and skills that honour the wisdom and experiences of both Elders and youth. We purposefully closed the conference with this panel because building relationships between youth and Elders and building those relationships on the land are one way in which we can heal some of the harms of the past and actively resist ongoing forms of colonialism. This session was about hope, healing, and building good things for the future.

Guided by facilitator Leela Gilday, Elder Sarah Rogers, program administrator Mandee McDonald, and youth participant Robyn McLeod reflected on how they learned to live on the land and offered food for thought in designing programs going forward. They discussed, for example, some of the barriers to participation that exist for youth and elders, including intergenerational trauma, money, addiction, and shame. These barriers must be addressed to ensure that programs are accessible to all who need them. All of the participants spoke to the importance of having mental health and addictions support in place for participants. Equally valuable was having someone who could help facilitate the relationship between young people and Elders.


The conference concluded as it had begun with small group discussions. Delegates shared some of their learnings with each other. They also discussed how they would share these learnings with their home communities. This is where the real measure of the conference will be taken, in rec centres, Elders homes, youth centres, and bush camps across the NWT. We look forward to hearing about your successes and challenges at next year’s conference, which will take place in Yellowknife in October 2018.