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Planting the seed of change

Workshop encourages Aboriginal youth to take action

Shyan Hrynyk (right) developed a plan to help combat drug and substance abuse in her community as part of the RCMP's Youth Leadership Workshop. Credit: Louis Zuniga

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Eighteen-year-old Shyan Hrynyk dreams of becoming an RCMP officer one day. And for a week this past February, she got a taste of what community policing is all about.

Hrynyk was chosen as one of 16 Aboriginal youth across Canada to participate in the RCMP's first Aboriginal edition of the Youth Leadership Workshop.

Young leaders from each province and territory met at Depot to talk about the serious issues that plague their communities and brainstorm ways to fix them.

"It was very eye-opening to listen to all the problems happening across Canada in all the different settlements," says Hrynyk, who was one of two representatives from Alberta. "And it was empowering to hear all the ways we can resolve them."

The weeklong workshop, organized by RCMP National Youth Services, partnered teens in grades 9 to 12 with RCMP officers from their home communities.

Each young person identified an issue that was particularly relevant in their hometown, ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to mental health and suicide.

With some guidance from their RCMP allies, they developed action plans to target youth crime and victimization in their communities.

Workshop

The Youth Leadership Workshop program began in 2011 as a youth crime-prevention strategy. For this sixth run of the program, organizers Louis Zuniga and Vanessa Rotondo focused on youth from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.

"Homing in on the national youth voice and those youth who are directly impacted by certain issues is extremely important," says Rotondo, who works with National Crime Prevention Services.

Commanding officers from each division selected RCMP officers to participate; they in turn chose strong youth leaders from their communities to attend the workshop.

Some of the teens selected already had ties to the RCMP, like Hrynyk, who was part of the Youth Police Observer Program. Before going to Depot, she had spent more than 60 hours shadowing an RCMP member, Cst. Daniel Wegner. After the week at Depot, their relationship is even stronger.

"A teacher wouldn't be the same," says Zuniga, manager of the National Youth Strategy. "It's the respect and visibility of officers in the community that can help. Building trust changes the youth's perception of police officers, and that will stay with them forever."

Throughout the week, the youth attended workshops to develop their ideas, and were even taught how to promote their projects through social media, where they gained the attention of Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes and Inuk NHL player Jordin Tootoo.

The group also did team-building activities, including trying RCMP fitness training, attending a Regina Pats hockey game and exploring the local Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

"They'll share their experience with other youth, and then perhaps that peer-to-peer sharing may change perceptions within the larger community, planting the seed and encouraging action," says Rotondo.

Back home

Hrynyk chose to focus on drug and substance abuse in her Métis community. Nestled in the heart of northern Alberta with a population under 1,500, she says the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement has little to offer to youth.

"Older kids are influencing the younger ones to make negative decisions," she says. "I want to stop that by getting young people involved in after-school activities."

Now back at home, Hrynyk has already started talking to local kids, asking them what sort of activities they'd like to see. Suggestions included sports leagues and music nights.

"These kids don't have anything to do after school," says Wegner, Hrynyk's mentor. "It's something that's really overlooked."

Using a combination of RCMP micro-grants, school grants, fundraising money and donations, they hope to rent out the local Buffalo Lake gym on some evenings. To kick-start the initiative, the RCMP has already donated volleyballs, footballs and floor hockey equipment.

For the next year, the RCMP will continue to support Hrynyk and the 15 other teens involved in the workshop, helping them keep on track to complete their initiatives.

"With this opportunity, if I can get some of the younger kids involved, it can make positive changes throughout the community, and maybe it can spread even further," says Hrynyk.

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 2, 2016).

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