Land-based learning in Nibinamik lets the kids shine

By: Kimberley Hartwig, Community Journalism Trainer

Every year, the people of Nibinamik flee the community for the peace and tranquility of the Breathing Grounds, also known as O-ma-day-na-moh-win-nik. The area was the brainchild of Mike Wabasse, a Nibinamik elder, who wanted to create a place where youth could come to learn traditional activities and ways of life. He certainly achieved his goal. This year over 200 people attended the youth retreat from July 15-20.

The Breathing Grounds are located five kilometres from Nibinamik and are accessible only by boat. Photo: Lennox Wabasse

Since I arrived in Nibinamik, I have spent a lot of time with the children. The kids have without a doubt been the highlight of my time here. They are energetic, friendly, inquisitive and adventurous. These qualities shine when the kids are outside running around in the bush and interacting with nature. Within the school, however, it’s a little bit of a different story.

Kids had many activities to take part in during the 20th annual youth retreat but we still made time for journalism.

When I go into the school to work with the kids there might be about five kids present in a class of 10-15. Inside the school the kids are much less willing to share their thoughts or answer questions. It takes a lot more coaxing to get them to engage and even more to get them to sit still. I’ve worked with hundreds of children over the years and I’ve never seen such a drastic change from one environment to the other. Within the school, something clearly isn’t working. Of course, this problem isn’t limited to Nibinamik. Across the country Indigenous children graduate high school at rates much lower than their non-Indigenous peers. This difference is especially noticeable on reserves where only 48% of the population hold a high school certificate.

This is why it was so refreshing to see the kids out at the youth retreat. Here, the kids were in their element. Every day they were participating in activities like canoeing, kayaking, fishing, fish cutting, boating, tipi raising, and capture the flag. Out here, they were confident.

In a recent conversation with Natasha Sugarhead, the head of Nibinamik’s Youth Council, she said that one of the greatest strengths she sees within the youth is how they work together and encourage each other. This quality was on full display during the week with the older kids looking out for the younger ones and the kids working together while out fishing or canoeing.

Youth from Nibinamik take part in a boat and motor safety lesson. Photo: Lennox Wabasse

Recently, I found an article on a Grade 12 experiential education canoe trip that followed a roughly 130 kilometre traditional First Nations canoe route from Nibinamik to Webequie. I shared the article with my journalism summer students and the prospect of earning high school credit while out on the land was exciting to them. They both eagerly agreed this is something they would like to take part in. Unfortunately, other than this article, I haven’t heard any mention of such an opportunity. Luckily, the school here is also invested in land-based education and frequently the children head out to do activities like fishing and drumming and learn Oji-Cree. It’s invigorating to see the community so invested in asserting their traditions and their language.

A youth from Nibinamik learns how to prepare a White Fish for smoking during the youth retreat. Photo: Lennox Wabasse

During the final evening of the youth retreat, we went out to a place known as Big Rock. As the name suggests, it’s a big rock. The kids love going out there because they can swim, go tubing and jump off the aforementioned Big Rock. Once we arrived at the site, it took a few minutes but soon the kids were flinging themselves off the rock into the cool water below and encouraging their more reluctant friends to jump.

Paige Oskineegish was one of the many kids who jumped off Big Rock during the final evening of the youth retreat.

Life in Canada can be hard for Indigenous kids so it was great to see the kids laughing and having fun with their friends. Some of the kids didn’t manage to jump off the rock this year, but I’m sure that with the help and encouragement of their friends, they’ll make it eventually. 

Kids encouraged each other to jump off Big Rock and by the end of the evening almost everyone had made the leap. 

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