Acceptance and family are the words members of the Renfrew-Collingwood Aboriginal Youth Canoe Club (RCAYCC) use most often to describe their group.
The club, which formed in 2000, focuses on Vancouver First Nations youth from age 10 to 29, but anyone can join.
When the Courier recently paid a visit to the club at Collingwood Neighbourhood House, the group had just returned from a three-day camping trip and “paddle” on Harrison Lake. According the group’s coordinator Emanuela Sheena, each year close to 100 youth access the program. On this night there are a dozen or so members in attendance.
Youth worker Eileen Tann, 26, sits cross-legged on the floor while group members form a loose circle around her. Tann leads a “share” about highlights and lowlights of the recent trip. There is laughter about a failed attempt to hold down a tarp with a rock thrown over a tree branch and grunted complaints about rain-soaked camping gear.
Each paddle and land activity is planned and run entirely by the youth. Tann said the leaders are there to guide, not control. In addition to canoeing, activities have included drum making, first aid and résumé workshops as well as trips around the province to meet with elders and youth from other Nations. This night, the group discusses a possible rock-climbing excursion suggested by member.
Stephen Cain, 23. “We have a lot of input which is crucial to any youth program,” he said.
Tann agrees the expectation that each member will contribute ideas and energy to the group is a big part of its success. “Building confidence,” she said, “involves pushing them to realize they can do more than they think they can.”
Tann joined the club eight years ago as a teen mom of two. She said at the time she thought her path in life was set. “People tell you once you are a teen mom that is all you will ever be,” said Tann. She credits Sheena for pushing her to go to college to become a youth worker.
Colten Quigley, 14, who said he was scared to go out in the canoe until Sheena encouraged him, also credits the group for fostering unconditional acceptance. “I am not First Nations and they accepted me,” he said.
After the share, the group moves around a large table where Sheena dishes out huge helpings of lasagna and freshly tossed spinach salad. Members talk and laugh between mouthfuls. Once finished eating, children get down and run in circles around the table. Tann said one of the differences with this group is that children of participants are welcome, reducing stress over childcare and allowing members to “role model healthy parenting” for each other.
Member Verna Smith’s six-year-old son Douglas giggles as he pushes another boy around the room in a chair. Smith, 23, said the group is a family. “If there is a problem, we solve it together,” she said.
This is the first year in the group for 14-year-old Tanner Mitchell. He said he likes “everything” about the group. He plans to continue canoeing indefinitely because he loves the scenery out on the water, but he also has many ideas about what else he could do with his life, “I might be a youth worker… or make good food as a chef, or maybe be a mechanic,” he said.
Tanner’s mom Tania Mitchell said she has been happy to see her son’s confidence improve through the cultural pride the group instills. “I can see he will grow into the man I want him to be,” she said.
The canoe club is funded through Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth, but in June of 2012 the Treasury Board froze funding. Undeterred, the group stepped up its fundraising efforts and the media picked up their story. The federal government restored funding a few months later. The group currently receives $115,000 per year. Sheena said that while the amount may seem like a lot, many of the club’s activities are quite costly. For example the Pulling Together Journey, a yearly relationship-building paddle with other First Nations’ youth and law enforcement officials, involves transporting, feeding and housing 32 people over several days, said Sheena.
Vancouver Police Department aboriginal liaison officer Const. Richard Lavallee has worked closely for eight years with the club on the Pulling Together Journeys and said the group “is a really big asset to the community.”
He said he has watched some of the club members grow up. “They are really great kids,” he said. “They have a great work ethic.” Lavallee said he wishes a group like RCAYCC existed when he was a youth.
On Sept. 17, the group will be out on local waters in their two Northern Dancer canoes transporting residential school survivors to ceremonies as part of Reconciliation Canada Week events.
To learn more about the Renfrew Collingwood Aboriginal Youth Canoe Club check out their Facebook page.
To learn more about Reconciliation Canada Week events, see reconciliationcanada.ca.