The Bright Future for Fort Chipewyan Youth
When I first touched down in Fort Chip in February of 2015, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into! All I knew was that I had accepted a teaching contract in a remote First Nations town in Northern Alberta, and was told to bring warm clothes.
Coming all the way from small-town Newfoundland, my knowledge of indigenous people and ways of life was very limited, to say the least; like many, most of what I had previously been exposed to were the typical stereotypes and stigmas that surround indigenous people everywhere. After a bit of culture shock and a couple of months on the job, my eyes and mind were opened to a whole new degree. Throughout the nearly four years I’ve lived in Chip, I’ve probably gathered enough knowledge and stories to write a dozen articles on a dozen different topics! For the editor and reader’s sake, I’ll stick to what I know best as a teacher here: the youth.
One of the most common stereotypes of indigenous communities, I think, is the misconception that all First Nations communities are disadvantageous places for children and youth to live and grow up. I can’t speak for anywhere else, but I can certainly tell you that isn’t the case in Fort Chip. One of the first things that really caught me by surprise after getting settled here was the amount and quality of facilities, initiatives, and opportunity in general at the fingertips of Fort Chip’s youth population.
As a kid, my mother or father would have to drive 40 minutes each way to the nearest arena to make sure I made it to minor hockey practice - and I only got to practice twice a week. In Chip, an aspiring hockey player can simply walk over to the Archie Simpson arena – which is quite nice, I should add – and work on his or her craft literally any day of the week, for hours on end. Then there’s the Sonny Flett Aquatic center, fully equipped with a 25 meter lane pool, waterpark, hot tub, sauna, waterslide, and of course the incredible staff at RMWB that keep all of these operations running smoothly. Did I mention the Keyano College campus here in town? Simply put, I had never before seen or even heard of another community of this size being as fortunate. In fact, I know of many communities with literally 10 times as many people with none of these luxuries.
Of course, Fort Chip also has all of the basics – the K-12 Athabasca Delta Community School (also staffed by an incredible group of people), ball field, fitness gym, numerous playgrounds, and lots of traditional land-based learning opportunities at the disposal of any interested youth.
Having grown up in a tiny Newfoundland town, you might be able to sympathize with me when I say that perhaps my biggest pet peeve is hearing a teenager (or anyone for that matter) here in Chip claim that “there’s nothing to do in Fort Chip” or “Fort Chip is so boring.” This actually happens quite often and I always jump on the chance to use it as a discussion starter between my students and me. The message I strive to send them is the same one I’m aiming to send in this article – there’s absolutely nothing holding back the youth of Fort Chip from dreaming and succeeding big on any path they choose. Fort Chipewyan is very unique in many, many ways, but the tremendous opportunities available to the youth and young adult population in what is by definition a “rural” area is perhaps the most obvious.
Again, a dozen more articles could be written on the various programming and initiatives directed towards improving the growth and quality of life for Fort Chipewyan youth. There’s so many things happening that I’ll apologize in advance for any I leave out.
To give you a glimpse of the sport & recreation scene, I’ll start with my pride and joy – the youth ice-hockey program. When a coworker of mine asked me to help him coach hockey when I first arrived back in 2015, of course I eagerly accepted! Since then, we have witnessed rates of improvement and growth I never thought possible – kids who could barely stand up on skates when we started are flying around the ice and showing some serious potential just three short years later. I have no doubt whatsoever that it was only made possible by the amount of extra ice time that the Fort Chip kids are very fortunate to have available to them.
In the past three years, with some help from Athabasca Delta Community School, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Right to Play, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation and others, we have enjoyed more than our share of successes. Just this past season, we collaborated with Athabasca Delta Community School and Right to Play, and welcomed former NHL player and television series producer John Chabot to Fort Chip for a free-of-charge three day skills camp. I think it’s fair to assume that not many hockey players in rural communities are quite as lucky!
Although education may not be as high on the priority list as ice-hockey or hunting for a lot of the youth, there are many great things happening here, too. Since 2015, we have seen behaviours, academics, and the school atmosphere in general all steadily improve. Like the other aspects of life in Fort Chip, school life is also very unique. Our students aren’t confined to classrooms, and many of them spend a significant amount of time in land-based learning settings designed to keep the indigenous culture alive for future generations.
In 2016, for example, I was lucky enough to join 12 students and four other adults for a five-night camping, hunting, and fishing excursion to a secluded lake that we could only reach by float plane; it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career thus far! I, like many others, sure would have learned a lot while having a lot of fun doing it if I had been afforded such opportunities as a young boy. The school (oftentimes with help from industry funds, Northland School Division, each of the bands, and organizations such as Right to Play, Nunee Health, Lake Athabasca Youth Council, Helping Hands to Success, etc.) is also mainly responsible for many other exciting opportunities in other dimensions. In just the three years I have been here, we’ve had and unbelievable number of interesting and inspiring people and organizations come through our school and influence the lives of our youth in one way or another (Former Olympic gold medalist Beckie Scott, Ski North, UNITY charity, UFC fighter Kajan Johnson, and Trickster Theatre are just a few examples.) I hate being repetitive, but again, I’ve personally never experienced a rural school with nearly as many cool visitors as we’ve had come and go here at ADCS!
None of this would be possible without a select, dedicated group of passionate adult leaders in the community. I can’t possibly give credit to every single person who helps in their own way, but it would be a major injustice to end this article without acknowledging the group as a whole. Whether it be the hard-working, resilient teachers at Athabasca Delta Community School, coaches and parent volunteers of the sport and recreation programs, amazing staff at the RMWB facilities, Lake Athabasca Youth Council, leaders of experiential land-based learning initiatives, or either of the band councils - we all go above and beyond to make sure Fort Chip is a fun and opportunistic place for youth to live, learn, and grow. Without naming each group specifically, I can also vouch for how critical industry grant funding is toward our efforts to improve the quality of life for our youth here - they too deserve a lot of thanks for the success we’ve had and the direction we’re headed in.
If anything at all stays with you after reading this, I want it to be the notion that oftentimes what you hear about a particular place – in this case, Fort Chipewyan – can be quite far from the actual reality on the ground. When I moved here, I was told by a lot of different people that Fort Chip was a really tough place for youth. Any place you can name has its own unique challenges and issues, and Fort Chip is definitely not exempt, but for what is considered a rural place, the youth here have an almost mind-blowing amount and variety of opportunities and support to dream and succeed as big as youth anywhere else.
For the Fort Chip youth, it is not a matter of lacking options or opportunity, it is a matter of choosing whether or not to take initiative and reap the rewards of such favourable circumstances. Nonetheless, I can’t find any reason why the improvements and successes we have experienced over the last four years won’t continue to multiply exponentially.
Contrary to popular belief, in a lot of ways, Fort Chip is actually an advantageous place for youth, and rest assured that the future is bright! At the very least, I sincerely hope I never hear a young person in Fort Chip say that it’s “boring” here ever again!