So far, all the stars are lining up, and 15 AHS students are readying to participate in a dream exchange with students from Ahousaht First Nation, in British Columbia’s fabulous Clayoquet Sound.
“Cathy and I were there last June, kayaking, and I met a man on the beach one morning. We started talking, and he invited us up to breakfast,” said AHS teacher Peter Burton last week. “We talked about Ahousaht and Atikokan, and found a lot of cool similarities…”
It turned out the man was the father of Curtis Dick, the deputy chief of Ahousaht, who the Burtons ended up meeting. The talk about the two communities continued, and Dick suggested a student exchange might be worth pursuing.
That led Burton to contact the Canadian Sports Friendship Exchange Program, a federal organization that is primarily privately funded (the NHL Players Assoc. is a major benefactor). Last year it helped support exchanges involving about 650 young people, mostly between English and French communities.
The association loved the idea of an exchange linking a BC First Nation with a remote NWO community, and last month it agreed to fund the air fare for an exchange.
“There are still a few things that have to be lined up, but we’ve met with the parents, talked with the board office, and have gotten all the approvals we need at this end,” said Burton, who is teaching the Travel and Tourism course this year. (One of the reasons he explored the Ahousaht exchange idea was that the class used to get some special travel funding as a dual credit course. It’s lost that status, however, so it didn’t look like a Minneapolis trip would be possible this year.)
The high school at Ahousaht is on board, too. Located on the west side of Vancouver Island (Tofino country), it doesn’t get anything like a Canadian winter, so Atikokan has something very special to offer. They will come here for five days, February 28 to March 4.
Burton and the class are organizing a range of winter activities – dog sledding, ice fishing, skiing – along with some time in Thunder Bay and at Lakehead University.
The Atikokan class will visit Ahousaht during the first week of May. They will fly to Vancouver Island, then drive to Tofino, where they will spend a night, and then head to Ahousaht. There are actually two communities (Ahousaht and Marktosis, also spelled Maaqtisiis), both on Flores Island, and both accessible only by air or water. Each has about 900 residents.
The students will be able to hike in the Coastal rain forest, see whales, do some salmon fishing and smoking, go sea kayaking, and more. (Flores Island is home to Ahousaht Hot Springs, and is near Mears Island, another Clayoquet Sound attraction.)
It is a true exchange, Burton emphasized. The students will get a real taste of one another’s reality (likely even shadowing one another for a day of school in each place). “The kids will be billeted with families in the other community, and we’re encouraging them now to start to get to know each other via Facebook, and the like,” he said.
There is another element to the whole exchange that Burton hopes will come together. The Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, is from Ahousaht, and the school is investigating whether he might consider visiting Atikokan while the Ahousaht young people are here. Burton has spoken with Glenn Nolan, an Atikokanite as well as former chief of Missanabie Cree FN, about the idea.
Such a visit would be a major event for Northwestern Ontario, and has the potential to turn a small-school exchange into a much broader community cultural exchange.
It would certainly seem likely that, given the strong involvement of NWO First Nations in a wide range of mining developments in the region, the region’s First Nations would be keen about a visit from the Grand Chief.
The exchange is being planned with cost issues at the forefront. While the exchange program funding covers the biggest single cost, airfares, there will be a myriad of other costs involved. These include things like getting students to and from Thunder Bay, and to and from Ahousaht. And there is the cost of activities, although “we have been looking at activities that minimize costs”.
The students have each agreed to kick in $250 toward these costs, and the parents have agreed to do some fund-raising. The first event was at the Christmas Extravaganza last month (it raised about $250), and things like a yard sale, and possibly an auction, are in the works.
“We know the [economic] status of the town, and want to keep it to as little as possible,” said Burton. “But we don’t want money to get in the way of things. The more we raise, the more we can do with these kids. And we know this is a community with lots of people who genuinely believe in [supporting] opportunities for kids.”